Monday, January 31, 2011

La Vie En Rose

Another cold spell fell on Delhi over the weekend; a light mist swirled in and threatened to settle, shrouding the winter sun.  A breeze began and I shivered right through the early morning walk in the park.  My father and I valiantly spent Sunday driving outside Delhi to open and clean up an old, ancestral house and, on finishing, completed all the shopping and miscellaneous chores that had been pending.

Full of the satisfied, pragmatic feeling that comes when we have ticked things off our 'to do' list, we sat down to treat ourselves to a film at home.  We watched Sabrina - and as always, fell under the spell of Audrey Hepburn (and my father enjoyed William Holden's performance but I was drawn, as I always am, to Humphrey Bogart and his taciturn ways).  It's miraculous how an endearing film changes everything around you.  We were no longer sitting, worn out, at home, watching an old black and white moving picture.  We were transported to a world of love, life, sparkling women, romantic Parisians, determined American tycoons - one of elegance, subtlety, humour and warmth.  And as we sighed in satisfaction over the end, we remained enveloped in that little pink cloud that stays with you for a while after the film is over.

After this began a mouse hunt (for a tiny rodent had slipped in while we were gazing raptly at the television screen) followed by a short walk in the cold night air.  But everything seemed different; the mist softened the horizon and the orange street lights were muted to a gentle glow.  Trees took on dramatic shapes and I realized that the rose buds in the garden were beginning to unfold.  Sabrina's special song - La vie en rose played on silently but surely in my mind - and it really became a magical night.  I believe I will always think of Sabrina when I hear this song.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Streets Of Siem Reap

Siem Reap, the closest town to Angkor, was once a village (Siem- Siamese, Reap- Defeated).  Now it has grown into the most frequented tourist town of Cambodia.  For all its development, it remains a small town at heart, with its old market being the hub of life.  Siem Reap has changed much since we last visited, about five years ago.  There is now a gleaming new airport, very creatively designed, and an impressive row of immigration offiicers seated in a kind of panel close to the entrance.  Almost everyone gets a visa on arrival so after each plane load, there is a short flurry of activity and then silence again.  It's useful to keep in mind that one has to pay $25 per person as airport tax while departing (a very large amount compared to local costs) - so one shouldn't spend all one's money shopping!  The currency of Cambodia is Riel but most transactions are done in US dollars.

The city in the winter months (still very warm - in the thirties, but there is no rain and the roads are motorable) is filled with tourists and one sees them everywhere - walking or cycling on the streets, lounging in hotel lobbies, filling the touristy restaurants and spilling out onto the pavements, braving the afternoon heat to do the rounds of the temples.  We were told that initially the tourists came mostly from the West, but now there are plane loads of visitors from Asian countries as well (perhaps as Cambodia is now a Buddhist country). 

Buddhism came to Cambodia in waves, in the 13th and 14th centuries, the last wave being Theravada Buddhism ( a form that is practiced in Sri Lanka).  It is interesting to see the change in the manner of praying over the last few years(sometimes irritating to me because large, often unaesthetic Buddhas are placed in the beautifully sculpted temples, including Angkor Wat) - the transition from individual meditation to ritualistic prayer.  This time in Angkor Wat I saw a large Buddha statue draped in yellow-ochre cloth with all kinds of objects placed as offerings before it including a whole baked pig.  And guides were merrily asking tourists to light incense and bow a certain number of times "One for yourself, one for boyfriend, one for sister, one for ..."  I beat a hasty retreat at this stage.

Tourism clearly is the lifeline of this town now.  The market is full of touristy products, well packaged and attractively displayed.  They cater to all kinds of tourists but on the whole the prices are high, the quality variable and bargaining is often required.  There is another part of the market where locals shop that is quite different but most people there speak Khmer and communication is difficult.  Although we still witnessed the friendly and hospitable side of most Cambodians, there is a clear shift towards commercialization.  This is inevitable, but for a country like Cambodia, I feel it is more unfortunate than everywhere else, as there are very few people still alive who retain a knowledge of traditional skills.  More than ever, it is now that they need help not just with de-mining and conservation projects but with patrons that enable them to keep alive classical and traditional forms of art, craft and lifestyle.  The Khmer Rouge destroyed a whole generation of skilled artists and intellectuals and it took many years and help from the royal family to revive some of their amazing classical dances (and music and art), now being kept alive at Phnom Penh (the capital city).  The tourist versions of these leave much to be desired.

Siem Reap is a mix of French and Khmer influences and the two don't visibly merge.  There are a large number of French hotels and restaurants, these look different from the Khmer ones. It's difficult to describe exactly how.  They seem better turned out in a sense - gleaming on the outside, lots of glass, an airy, arty atmosphere within.  The Khmer places are often constructed with wood and brick and - well- they just have a different, more local feel to them.  There is an underlying current of conflict between the Khmer and the French to attract the common tourist pool.  As of now, the French seem more professional and consistent with quality of services.  The Khmer places are unpredictable - there are some amazingly warm and efficiently run hotels and restaurants in the midst of many places that promise much but don't deliver.  Somewhat like India.  So we are unfazed and realize that we just need more time to explore the area.  But time is something we are short of and the local economy thrives on this.

Our hotel, Hotel Ta Prohm, was an unbelievable creation in teak.  The hotel owner, a very rich local, apparently has a passion for teak.  So, the entire place was lined with strips of teak from floor to ceiling .  This gave it a warm, not very light feel, which some people liked some some didn't.  The floors, perfectly polished, could be a little slippery (especially the stairs) and they creaked - but the experience of having so much beautiful gleaming wood everywhere felt  wonderful to me (as long as I didn't think of all those magnificent trees being cut down).  There were also large sculptures in teak and marble, beautiful reproductions of old temple pieces.  The staff was genuinely welcoming and besides the usual western fare, there was a simple but very satisfying  Khmer breakfast option every morning.  A wonderful pork broth, stir fried greens, noodles and crispy things on the side.  (The French hotels serve wonderful breads, coffee and confectionary, so there are various options depending on one's taste.)

We ate mostly in local places, hired a car and driver who also served as interpreter and explored Siem Riep and neighbouring areas.  We didn't feel the need for a guide, there being sufficient literature available and our being Indian (and familiar with basic Hindu temple architecture).  Besides, several guides that we overheard were merrily mixing up mythological tales, converting heroes into villains and vice versa.  We shopped for food and cooking ingredients (fish paste, shrimp paste, strings of local delicious sausages) in the local market, were ticked off by an elderly shopkeeper as we wanted to smell the different varieties of tea, stopped by the roadside to watch palm sugar being made and taste it in its different stages, bought delicious mandarin oranges, pineapples and bananas (while our driver bought fried crickets).  We looked at blood red rubies, deep blue sapphires in a small jeweller's shop and and bargained vigorously (with limited success) to bring the prices down.

In all this, we were accompanied by our friend, Madhusudan, an enthusiastic photographer, and he managed at one time to record a very interesting street game  - a kind of 'leg tennis' he called it, where people use their feet instead of racquets, to hit a small ball back and forth.  These were just some of the many interesting moments on the streets of Siem Reap- a visit there is highly recommended!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unforgettable Temples Of Cambodia

Angkor Wat!  I begin with this remarkable temple.  I wonder how best to describe it - numerous books outline its structure, but cannot describe the feel of the place.  Just so you know, it's a giant rectangle, 1.5 km. by 1.3 km. surrounded by a 190 m wide moat.  It is huge!  Made of giant blocks of sandstone that were quarried more than 50 km. away and brought down the Siem Reap river on rafts.  It is built with a painstaking focus on detail - both large and small.  At the time of the equinox, the sun is directly above the central tower in the sanctum sanctorum.  In reply to a question we overheard an Australian tourist ask, "But was it planned or did it just happen?"- Yes!  I have no doubt that all of it was planned - down to every little detail of carving that fills the walls and threatens to overflow, reach out and touch you sometimes.

It is packed with symbolism - the moat representing the cosmic ocean, the Nagas that emerge and spread their hoods are denizens of the underworld and also a bridge between the world of man and that of gods (though they seem more like guardians to me), the courtyards filled with descriptions of the incarnations of Vishnu through the ages and then the five towers with the central one representing Meru, the mountain abode of the gods.  It originally contained a large statue of Vishnu at the very top.

This temple is striking because it combines giant, simple geometric proportions with an ornateness apparent only through the intricate and beautiful reliefs carved on many of the walls.  These carvings are exquisite, done by truly gifted artists who could portray gods, men and nature with equal ease.  There is a giant relief showing the churning of the ocean of milk.  The gods and demons look so determined to uncover the nectar beneath the ocean, the giant serpent Vasuki (used as a rope for churning) looks very distressed, the creatures of the ocean come tumbling out and the celestial beauties (apsaras) float above the ocean heavenwards.

The death of the monkey king Vali in a fight where he was tricked by his brother Sugreev (in collusion with Lord Rama - yes! even the gods were deceitful though they always managed to justify it) shows in the top panel, Vali busy in battle with Sugreev while Rama hides behind a tree, taking aim at Vali.  The lower panel shows the consequence of this heinous act - the dying monkey king, his eyes barely open surrounded by his followers - a troop of monkeys crying their hearts out.  If you wait long enough for all the tourists to leave and stand and stare at it in silence, you feel that the characters might step out any moment and begin to move before your eyes.  Such is the entrancement of this temple.

Monkeys crying their hearts out
 Perhaps I was fortunate to have a migraine the day we were visiting this temple.  As we reached the innermost tower, I could go no further and lay down on the stone steps below while the others climbed the tower.  People came and went past; I lay with my eyes closed.  Finally there were no people and no sounds (an amazing moment in retrospect because when I went back later to climb the tower I realised how continuously busy it is).  I opened my eyes to see an imposing flight of steps leading up towards the sky - inviting one to climb high and find a place of peace and repose.  I took a picture from that angle and I don't know if it conveys what I felt.

Steps leading to the innermost tower, Angkor Wat
After that it was time to leave, to walk back into the world as we know it.

Angkor Wat is by no means the only temple worth mentioning, there are many others though unfortunately most are not as well preserved.  Looting and destruction has continued through the ages, by incoming Buddists, local scoundrels, the Khmer Rouge, the French - endless tales abound.  Another beautiful (and much looted) temple is Banteay Srei, a small temple in pink sandstone filled with intricate and ornate carvings.
Banteay Srei
Beng Mealea - a gigantic temple complex completely taken over by trees is impressive and sad at the same time.  Fortunately trees have no evil agenda unlike men, and it is just a reminder that material objects that are not cared for will sooner or later be taken over by nature.

A tiny fragment of Beng Mealea
At Koh Ker stands the ruined 10th century capital of the king Jayavarman IV - the king who in a short span of twenty years, built a large number of temples dedicated to the trinity of the creator, preserver and destroyer.  Initially I wondered at the need to have so many temples close together, but when I began visiting them, I found a gradual sense of peace and a feeling of strength and comfort descending on me that only increased as I proceeded from one to the other.  Seeing the giant lingas (phallic symbols representing creation and being of the world) and the endless, beautifully engraved (as yet untranslated) inscriptions filled me with admiration for the people who created this using the strength of their beliefs and an extraordinary vision.  It brought to my mind these words -

'Listen,- perhaps you catch a hint of an ancient state not quite forgotten; dim perhaps, and yet not altogether unfamiliar, like a song whose name is long forgotten, and the circumstances in which you heard completely unremembered.  Not the whole song has stayed with you, but just a little wisp of melody, attached not to a person or a place or anything particular.  But you remember, from just this little part, how lovely was the song, how wonderful the setting where you heard it, and how you loved those who were there and listened with you.'  (A Course in Miracles)

Inscription on a column, perhaps in ancient Sanskrit
An intact linga


Monday, January 17, 2011

Under Cambodian Skies

Making palm sugar

I just returned from a trip to Cambodia - the country torn asunder by violence time and time again, which rises phoenix like each time, scarred but vibrantly alive.
Lotuses on the moat surrounding Angkor Wat

What draws me to Cambodia is partly its present - the gentle people aspiring for happiness in their own ways, the countryside untouched except for de-mining operations that still go on and also, to a great extent, its past.  Angkor pulls me towards it every few years- it whispers and beckons and I happily agree to visit it once more.  There are innumerable temples built from the 9th century onwards by the Khmer Hindu Devarajas ('God-Kings') that still remain.  Many still exude a sense of power and strength countered only by the unmatched force of natural elements that threaten to tear them apart stone by stone.  But Angkor Wat remains unrivalled - a creation of such stupendous artistic beauty that words and pictures do not do justice to it.  At least, that's what I feel.  I know that not everyone shares this view; I have heard many people saying, "What's the big deal?  It's just another temple."

I sit and think about what it is about Angkor that moves me.  And I think I'll write about it when I have tried to find words to describe my feelings, perhaps in the next article.  The closest that comes to capturing the spirit of Angkor is John Mcdermott's recently published book, Elegy : Reflections on Angkor, which captures the beauty of the temple and its surroundings in black and white.  (A few of his pictures are shown in the link below.)
But, for the remaining descriptions of my trip, I'm afraid my very ordinary pictures will have to do.

Avalokiteshwara looking benevolently on Angkor Thom (the Great City)?

The Asuras (Demons) contest the Devas (Gods) while churning the Ocean of Milk

Garuda (mythical vulture on which Vishnu rides) supports a temple

Nagas at the entrance to a wing of Angkor Wat

Scene from the Ramayana - defeat of the monkey king Vali, Banteay Srei

Just in time!

Stone carving (probably Shiva dancing his cosmic dance) broken off by tree roots, Beng Mealea

Prasat Thom, a giant pyramid above which stood a huge linga

Chan (our driver) buying fried crickets - a local favourite

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Don't Recoil - It's Only Oil

Oil is passé.  Or so the doctors say.  For some reason, all the allopathic doctors shake their heads when you tell them about oil massages.  It's almost as if something that feels so good can't possibly be doing you any good.  "It has no benefits," they say before handing you that (very expensive) bottle of medicated or fortified cream or shampoo.

Millions of Indians have been massaging oil onto their heads and bodies for what seems like aeons - for nothing (you ask)?  They shake their heads dismissively or give a small superior smile.  They don't say it, but they imply "We know better."

But, ah!  A bit of oil rubbed into your head feels so good, especially during a headache (as today) or on a very hot and dry day.  And nothing can beat that good old mustard oil massage (which we hated as children because the oil would sting)- the wonders it does for circulation and winter dryness.

Last year, I sincerely followed the "no oil" plan and I can't say that the creams and shampoos made a whole lot of difference.  And once you stop using them, you're back to square one.  So this year, I return to what's familiar and comfortable - herb infused oil for the hair, mustard or sesame oil for the body, apricot or almond oil for the face.  It feels good and, much of the time, smells good too.

And before me floats the unforgettable image of Johnny Walker, from the 1957 black and white film Pyaasa - singing a whole song dedicated to a street head-massager...

"If your head reels
Or your heart sinks
Come to me, dearest
Why worry?  Why worry??"

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Greetings for a Onederful Year

The new year comes rather unexpectedly and I always need a little time to get used to it.  No corners are turned, no milestones crossed, even the weather remains the same (or possibly gets colder).  Spring is really a more appropriate time for a new year, when one feels something stirring within.  But we seem to have no choice in the matter, so let me begin by wishing everyone a very happy new year.

Nothing heralds the new year more obviously and frustratingly as a new date - as all those cancelled cheques and overwritten notes can testify to.  So today, I was quite amazed when I wrote the date out - 1/1/11.  What a onederful coincidence and I hope this is just the beginning of many such that the new year will throw up.

Last night I tried to think of all the things the past year had brought.  Mostly I could sense a prelude to change at various levels.  Government changes, policy changes, decisions by nations that control money, power - and peace - have not been altogether reassuring.  Closer to home, ideas implemented in several states, research institutions and the city in general are not indicative of foresight or vision.  Our yoga class is going through a bleak phase as well, with almost no students and rising costs of maintenance.  I sense that the coming year will be one of change, where we will feel the impact of decisions made in the previous year and will have to move forward to adjust or change our direction.  But that's just a hypothesis and looking forward is always a tricky business.

On a personal level, the year that went by brought many nice little surprises and discoveries - of no real consequence perhaps but very enjoyable.  One of the more important ones for me was figuring out how to stay warm in bed during this cold winter by sandwiching myself between two strategically placed flannel sheets.  Truly blissful...

I also discovered the joys of bakery hopping- each bakery has a few things they make well and by trial and error, I have learnt where to buy the best croissants and danish, the best florentines, the best choux pastry and so on.  This is only for those lazy phases when I take a break from baking or for those indulgent moments, which arise from time to time.  Food wise, I began to standardize and compile my own favourite recipes - a long and growing list!

I read some imaginative children's books (I read quite a few of these as they are often gentler than adult fare); notable amongst these were Goodnight Mister Tom (Michelle Magorian), Bud, Not Buddy (Christopher Paul Curtis) and Framed (Frank Cottrell Boyce). 

I was introduced to the wonders of internet applications - the google blogger, where I began to read others' blogs and eventually dared to begin my own.  Another world-shaking application was the WikiLeaks - almost bringing to life the film 'The Green Zone' (I wish someone had had the courage to make this film when the war began) - and their grim consequences.

Closer to my heart, our yoga classes have changed this year.  We are at a deeper level of understanding with our teacher and our own practice.  There were several days when Raghavan and I were the only students in the class, with the yoga teacher sitting in front, watching us and just uttering a few words of instruction or explanation by which we would adjust our own postures.  Very little physical adjustments were made by him.  We tried, modified and understood new movements by focusing and concentrating on our own - discovered the need to question more - both the teacher and ourselves.  Of course, many mistakes were made- but none of them truly disastrous!

On this positive note I end, and welcome the new year with a sign I saw in a little roadside dhaba in the hills, where we stopped once for lunch.  Another year that has come racing along, without caring to ask whether or not we are ready for its whimsical demands.  Welcome!  We respect your haste but even haste needs some time...

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