September 21st, 2008

When the lamas dance behind the scenes

Many Buddhist monasteries in the Ladakh and Tibetan regions have a tradition of annual festivals, going back hundreds of years. They are usually dance spectacles with colourful costumes and masks adorned by the lamas (monks) for the occasion. Solemn ceremonies in their own way, it borders on the amusing when you see them practicing leading up to the big day. Like I was witness to at the Phiyang Monastery near Leh in July 2008 a few days before their festival.

For one, it was an opportunity to see the lamas let their guard down away from public eye and behave just like lesser mortals; they were practising in an area usually not open to outsiders. Before I witnessed these sessions, the image of a lama came across as someone who smiled but did not laugh, one who spoke but did not talk too much and one who always seemed a bit serious about everything.

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Winning hearts with a bunch of peas in Ladakh

When you drive from Leh to Kargil in the Ladakh region of the Indian Himalayan state of Jammu and Kashmir, there is a distinct change in the ‘humanscape’ from predominantly Buddhist to largely Muslim. Being a troubled state, and its close proximity to Pakistan, you are never sure what to expect from the people of this region.

It took just a group of children to shatter any stereotyped apprehensions when I stopped at a village about 30 kilometers before Kargil to take some pictures; as I stood with my camera, a group of small boys and girls surprisingly came up to me with a gift of a bunch of peas freshly taken from their fields. And I realized it is moments like these in one’s lives that suddenly make the world so much a beautiful place.

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Tabo, the village of cavemen and Lamas

Once upon a time, there was a small Himalayan village located 3,050 metres above sea level. In the Lahaul-Spiti valley, mostly a cold desert region. Populated by only a few ‘souls’, their homes being caves found on a mountain face of the village. Living at close quarters were some Lamas practicing their faith in what is the oldest continually functioning Buddhist establishment in India. Going back to as far back as 996 A.D.

And all of them have been living happily thereafter. In a time capsule, with their society and culture virtually untouched, before development came knocking on the caves. But the village of Tabo continues on its date with its own karma in the midst of cafes claiming to serve the world’s highest cappuccino or food with positive vibration!

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The Apricot Man of Ladakh

If you drive through Ladakh in the summers, or at least in the month of July, you will see trees all over laden with the yellow apricot fruit, mostly ripe to eat. A restaurant in Khaltse does not have desserts on its menu, but the manager will point to the apricot tree under which you are served your meals and suggest you pluck these after for a sweet taste. You will also find children on roads going through villages waving to cars to stop to buy the ripe fruit they have carefully picked trees for customers.

But the one set of apricots to catch my attention more than any other were those being collected by an old man by the highway roadside a little after Biamah on the Leh – Kargil route via Batalik. Sitting hunched over, with tattered clothes and a Tibetan cap, his bloodshot eyes caught my eyes more than the rest of his condition, wrinkles and grey hair.

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Flower Market in Delhi at dawn

If you are up even before dawn in Delhi, you may want to go for a run along the city’s many green belts. Or you could pay a visit to India’s biggest wholesale flower market in Connaught Place, the main commercial and shopping district in the centre of the capital of the country.

First question: Why early morning? Because it is a temporary market that comes alive at 4 am and disappears by 9 am. Traders display their offerings during this time when retailers and decorators, and some customers who want flowers for their personal use, come to stock up for their own customers. Hundreds of traders set up shop every day of the year, all temporary, to do an annual business over $100 million (unofficial estimates). A permanent market to the east of Delhi is currently being planned. But the market may remain primarily a morning one as trade customers need to attend to their respective businesses during the day.

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Qutab Minar, Islam’s first outpost in the region

Islam established its first formal foothold in India when a mosque was constructed in what is known as the the Qutab Minar complex, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the Mehrauli area of New Delhi. And as a sign of centuries of turmoil to follow, 27 Hindu and Jain temples were demolished to provide the materials and space for the same.

This may not have been the first mosque in India though - it is believed to be the Cheraman Juma Masjid in the Methala village of Kodungalloor taluk in the state of Kerala. It was built around 629 AD, a result of close trade ties between the Arab world and the Chera kings who ruled Cheranad, or ancient Kerala, in that period.

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