Ramadan

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“The month of Ramadan is that in which was revealed the Quran; a guidance for mankind, and clear proofs of the guidance, and the criterion (of right and wrong).” -Chapter 2, Revelation 185 of the Quran.

According to the Holy Quran, it’s in the month of Ramadan of the lunar Islamic calendar, followed by Muslims world-wide, that Prophet Mohammed first heard the revelations which make it up. Hence, the significance and celebrations!

Throughout the month of Ramadan, Muslims have the pre-dawn meal Sehri, which is followed by fasting from sunrise to sunset. The fast is then broken joyfully by Iftar, the sumptuous evening meal.

Hyderabad and Delhi are two very important vantage points to observe the Islamic celebrations, because, to put it simply, the former has been the Nizam dynasty’s seat and the later has been the pivot of Mughal India. This Eid, Ethereal Colours, brings to you an exclusive collection of photographs straight from the streets of Hyderabad and Delhi, where festivities blossomed in the evenings, prior to the Iftar, throughout the holy month!

Young girls watch on as evening Iftar celebrations unfold at the Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya durgah.

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Police and home-guards on vigil near the Charminar in Hyderabad.

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A hawker selling glossy ladies sandals near the Charminar.

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Gearing up for Iftar at the Jama Masjid, Delhi.

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One of the brightly lit shops on the way to the Hazrat Nizamuddin Durgah.

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Film makers capturing the evening celebrations at the Durgah.

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As his mom offers her prayers, he is busy making faces at the camera.

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The uniformity of religion: offering Namaz facing Mecca at Jama Masjid.

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Markets and vendors blossom in abundance near the Charminar in the month of Ramazan. In the background, The Charminar.

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The fast will end with Iftar; Jama Masjid’s courtyard bustles with people.

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Wudu – Washing and preparing for the prayers.

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As dusk sets in, women offer the evening prayers.

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A vendor sells the traditional vermicelli in the old city of Hyderabad.

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A perfume seller applies surma in his eyes. It is believed that applying surma in eyes is an act of pleasing Allah.

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The Tantric Cult

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This photo essay originally appeared in The Eclectic Times (http://www.eclecticmag.com) August, 2012 Issue.

***

Primarily associated with the Tantric Shakti cult of worship, Ambubachi celebrates the menstruation period of Goddess Kamakhya. The gateways of the holy Kamakhya Temple in Guwahati remain closed for three days while lakhs of believers chant words from Holy Sciptures, musing on life’s journey, singing devotional sings and holding religious discourses outside the gate. The gates are opened on the fourth day, for a ‘darshan’ of the Devi. It is also considered holy if they can procure a piece of cloth, called the anga-vastra, which is believed to have been used by the goddess during the period.

Devotees from all across India and abroad throng the temple. There are Sanyasis, black clad Aghories, the Khade-babas, the Baul singer or the singing minstrels of West Bengal, intellectual and folk Tantrics, Sadhus and Sadhvis, with long matted hair, along with the ordinary pilgrims from rural Assam and West Bengal. They bathe in the ponds of the temple, have food in the community distribution, sleep in the community arrangements, chant prayers and sing songs, as though in some trance where only the blessings and benevolence of the Devi matter.

And one cannot help but marvel as Nature, too, in its subtle ways, seems to bow down before the goddess with all its reverence. Black clouds hover across the sky and heavy shower wet the land.

Virgin Forests of the Khasi Hills

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Our article on Mawlynnong and the Living Root Bridges appeared in The Eclectic Times (http://www.eclecticmag.com) October, 2012 Issue.

***

Mawlynnong is known to the world for being the cleanest village in Asia (as rated by the travel magazine Discover India), and the unique living root bridges in the neighbouring villages. Mawlynnong and the other small villages surrounding it in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya remained hidden and unexplored until just a few years back. It took us only about an hour after leaving Shillong, to realize that we were in a different world all together. It was monsoon and we were where it rains the most. The hilly road, with its share of parabolic turns and slippery slopes, was covered with dense white clouds and the pitch glistened due to the slight drizzle.

Now what does ‘the cleanest village in Asia’ actually signify? Well to cut the suspense, the village paths are beautifully planted with flowers and every home is a small garden painted with wonderful colours. The people take good care that the village and its surroundings remain clean all the time. The outsiders are supposed to take back all the junk they bring along.

Mawlynnong lies very close to the Bangladesh border at Dawki and statistics claim that the village has a 100% literacy rates. There are no beggars either, and they welcome tourists, both national and international, quite heartily.

***

Mawlynnong – The Village

By the time we reached our guesthouse at Mawlynnong it was raining torrentially. We realized that our city umbrellas were miserably insufficient for the world-famous rains here.

The guest house that we had booked was a small cosy bungalow with two rooms and a wooden restaurant adjacent to the bungalow. Just next to the restaurant was an around 30-feet high view tower from which the plains of Bangladesh could be seen. We walked up to the top of the bamboo structure, taking a chance of the few minutes of clear sky. Balancing ourselves on the narrow bamboo stairs we reached the platform at the top – lo and behold, the green plain of Bangladesh was spread at a short distance from us. There were dark black clouds sailing from the infinite horizon over the stretched out greenery and water bodies. On straining our eyes, we could see tiny lights twinkle like stars, spread over hundreds of miles of plain land. Our cameras were in the room and we knew that if we go to get it, by the time we return the clouds would devour the skyline. And so it happened. Just in the next five minutes.

At night, while having dinner in the restaurant, we got introduced to Leaderfield- a jovial young Khasi fellow and our guide in Mawlynnong. It was decided that early next morning we would trek to the Wahthyllong living-root bridge along with Leader.

***

The Wahthyllong Living Root Bridge

In order to reach Riwai (the village which houses the Wahthyllong Bridge) we had to trek for a little more than half an hour, through the sloppy terrain of the region. Further, we had to descend steep-slippery-natural-stone stairs lined by moss and algae due to the monsoons for the next ten minutes. Leader informed us that such stairs are very common in Meghalaya and the locals are quite used to it.

As we followed the sound of a gushing mad river into the forest area, suddenly out of the clouds emerged a massive structure, the living-root bridge. Two banyan trees were planted on the two sides of the river, and their roots from all sides held together a narrow path made up of stones and gravel. And below the bridge flowed the Wahthyllong River flowing in cascades and jumping eccentrically all the while creating a deafening sound.

Typical only to the Khasi Hills region of Meghalaya in the world, the story of the living-root bridge is something like this- around 700 years ago, natives (“our fore-fathers” as our guide called them) planted two banyan trees on the two banks of the river and around fifty years after that, when the roots came out properly, they tied it together with long bamboos, and thus the living-root bridges were formed. In broken English, Leaderfield described the living-root bridges as “a natural bridge shaped by humans”. They grow in strength with age as the growing roots become more prominent. While some parts of these roots give strength to the whole structure, the other parts are weaved into handrails used for walking on the bridge.

If you wish to witness it the way we did, you have to go there first thing in the morning; else you will find hordes of tourists during the daytime.

***

The Berdaw Fall

Leaderfield and our guest house owner, Rishot, told us that if we really wanted to witness what the Khasi hills are all about we should visit the Berdaw Fall in this season. Meghalaya is well known for its falls. Cherrapunjee and Shillong boast of a number of them but the manner in which our hosts told us about it, our curiosity crossed all limits. “I don’t think you have seen anything like this ever before”, said Rishot.

On reaching the village which housed the waterfall, Leader told us that we would have to trek for another half an hour. He added that this trek would be through thick forest filled with all sorts of insects, snakes including King Cobras, lots of slippery steps, and the omnipresent invisibility.

In about 20 minutes, we reached this picturesque surrounding. There was a bamboo-wooden bridge hanging on concrete structures on either side of a river. A small tributary joined the river under this bridge. With the thick forests covering the rest of the area, it seemed as if it was straight out of a movie sequence. As we kept on moving ahead, a very loud gurgling noise came from the interiors and it seemed as if some rocket was being launched. We kept on walking behind Leader and from the smile on his face we could make out that very soon he would reveal his trump card.

We walked on for a couple of more minutes, and then, the sight which met our eyes was simply unbelievable. Imagine this- a massive waterfall say of the height of a twenty storied building is flowing with all force, and you are standing behind the fall (yes, we mean the inner side of the fall) say at the tenth storey of the building. Yes, that is what it was. A narrow pavement was carved out through the hill to walk behind the waterfall. Seeing our jaws dropped, Leaderfield smiled and bowed. Raising his voice above the sound of the gushing water, he screamed, “This fall ceases to exist in the winter, and no tourist dares to come here during monsoons. You people have made it!”

In that tumultuous stream where the water fell, a couple of locals had caught fishes and got a fire prepared for smoking the fishes. We joined them. Sitting by that waterfall with the locals while they enjoyed their meal, and chatting with them, was a once in a lifetime experience!

***

Rishot Khongthorem

The full name of our guest house owner was Rishot Khongthorem, a thin mid-aged farmer, who also ran this small guesthouse and restaurant. He had never been out of Mawlynnong except to Shillong a couple of times. His knowledge about ‘India’ was mostly out of textbooks and atlases. He knew about the ‘Indian rivers’, the capital of different states, and Rahul Dravid (because the cricketer had visited his guesthouse once), though he doesn’t know anything about Indian cricket, whatsoever. From his ideas about the heartland of the country, one can easily guess the sense of estrangement that most Khasis carry about the country. They have a world of their own- peaceful, beautiful and free from the trials and tribulations of the modern life, which haunts our urban lives so often.

Rishot said, “Before the arrival of Missionaries to this part of the world, we were divided and sub-divided tribes- jumping from tree to tree, killing animals for meat and killing each other for dominancy. But the introduction of Christianity into our lives changed everything- from bringing peace to making us aware of cleanliness. Mawlynnong’s cleanliness is not new; it has been like this for a long time.”

His lack of worldly experiences didn’t limit hi sense of understanding about life and society. Emphasising on the uniqueness of North Eastern India, he proudly said, “Precious things are not found close-by, but in the corner”. We talked about for an hour or two on issues of matrilineal aspect of the Khasi society, the role of the village headman of the villages, and how he thinks national and international tourism is beneficial for Mawlynnong.

***

As Ethereal Colours, we aspire to travel around the entire world one day- picking up stories and clicking photographs here and there; we dream of exploring unknown lands, rainforests and deserts, we want to bring out the stories of the common people and perhaps raise a voice for them someday- but whatever we do ahead in life, Mawlynnong and it’s warm hearted Khasi people will always occupy a very special corner of our hearts.

***

Reaching Mawlynnong:
You have to either take a direct taxi bound for Mawlynnong from Shilong or one up to Pyrunsula- a relatively urbanised small town, acting as a juncture for going to different inner parts of the district- and from there another one up to Mawlynnong. The taxi fare is minimal but they prefer local people before filling up the taxi more than tourists. Alternatively, you can drive your own vehicle up to Mawlynnong. The village has a reserved parking place for the tourists, in front of the village community hall. Most of the visitors keep it as a one day affair for visiting the magnificent Wahthyllong Living Root Bridge only.

Staying at Mawlynnong:
The village has few guesthouses and it is advisable to book them beforehand. The Sky View Guest House is a good option considering the serenity offered by its secluded location. You can contact D.D. Laloo & Company in Police Bazar, Shilong for the bookings.

Pothichitra : Palm Leaf Miniatures

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Odisha has something enigmatic about it, which is veiled by the tall coconut trees and houses made of large designed red bricks. We had been travelling through the heartland of the state for the last two days, yet weren’t able to feel its true pulse. The search took us to two villages near Puri, Raghurajpur and Nayak Patna. These two villages, situated quite close to each other (less than 200 metres away from each other), form an integral part of the Oriya culture, because of its contribution to traditional art.

Raghurajpur

Raghurajpur has been declared as heritage village and is famous for the Pattachitra. The scenery, houses, people – reminded us of old television programmes on Doordarshan like Malgudi Days and Surabhi. The walls were vibrantly coloured. Odisha’s interiors give you an impression of the unexplored and raw beauty of the country. We could clearly imagine how exquisite the village would look during the monsoons with the canals full of water and trees lush green- reverberating with freshness.

Pattachitra

The canvas for Pattachitra is prepared by taking two layers of old cotton sarees and coating them with a gum made out of conch shell powder and tamarind seeds. It is then rubbed with stones and dried. The colours used in the paintings are obtained naturally like conch shell for white, lamp black by burning of coconut shells for black, vegetables and stones for other vibrant colours. The brushes used for the paintings are made of hair of domestic animals. The theme of Oriya painting centres on the Jagannath and the Vaishnava cult. The price of an artwork depends not only upon its size, but also the amount of intricacies involved. A piece by a senior artist will cost you more than that by a student. Some of the pieces may even cost as high as fifty thousand rupees or even 1 lakh for foreign buyers. The products are sold to the local dealers and are sold in shops around the village and a place called Pipli nearby. Some pieces also go to the glamorous showrooms in Bhubaneswar, Delhi Haat, Mumbai, etc.

Sisir Kanta Satapthy, a Pattachitra artist, was quite generous in explaining us the details and intricacies involved in the making of the art pieces. He told us that Jagannath has 25 forms, all of which have been beautifully embedded on the many of the Pattachitras. Images of Ganesha, Radha-Krishna, animals and trees have also been crafted.

Nayak Patna and Pothichitra

Nayak Patna is the village of Pothichitras. Pothichitra is a traditional art-form of Odisha in which the artists use palm leaves, which are processed, tied and sewed together, instead of a paper. You can say they are magical carvings on dry palm leaves as on a first glance you will not believe that these have been carved by human hands, owing to the amount of details involved. Since ages, the livelihood of the people living in Nayak Patna comes through this art form. Every house is an artist’s humble abode; you are always welcome to go inside to the workspace and experience the creative burst. The village is basically in the form of a broad lane with houses on either side.

When we arrived there, we found the villagers – the artists – quite enthusiastic about showing us around their home-based galleries in an effort to sell some items. Yes there were some, who were so engrossed in their work that little did they care about two young backpackers strolling through the lanes, inquisitive about them and their work.

Guruji Maga Nayak

The village gets its name from the family of Guruji Maga Nayak, who is a pioneer in this art form. He and his three sons Prasanna, Santosh and Prashant run a small school where they teach the children of the village about the various techniques and intricacies involved in this heritage art-form. They have received several regional and national awards in appreciation of their effort to keep this art form alive. Being Saraswati Puja, Guruji’s school was closed and we approached his home. We were invited inside to have coffee. We accepted the request, sat with the artist and his sons, had coffee and chatted freely- about Odisha, Pothichitra and the modern times. We showed Guruji a Lonely Planet issue which had a mention about him and his work. The eldest son seemed to be excited about it, but Guruji was nonchalant.

Guruji’s family has preserved age old Pothichitra scriptures. They showed us a hundred year old piece made by their ancestors depicting the Ramayana. Guruji complained that Raghurajpur has been declared as the heritage village and most of the foreign and Indian tourists are attracted towards it now, leaving Nayak Patna bereft of popularity as well as commerce, to some extent.

Guruji and his sons came to bid us goodbye up to where our bike was parked. In Nayak Patna and Raghurajpur lies a uniquely spectacular grandeur of art and heritage. And as we waved towards them, a strong feeling respect for these simple men and women-the carriers of this grandeur- aroused somewhere deep in our hearts.

St. Thomas Fine Arts

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“So, where are you from?”

“Changnaserry”

“What does your father do?”

“He is a professor with the Edathua College, his name is Jim Jacob.”


Mr. Jacob smiled at my friend James. He has known my friend’s father (Jim Jacob) for
quite some time. They were members of the Edathua Lion’s Club and knew each other quite
well through the club meetings and functions.

While all this was being conversed in Malayalam, I was busy taking the pictures of the
statues kept neatly on the showcases, and tried to figure out what they were talking
about through their facial expressions. Kerala’s social life is quite different from
what we have in most part of the country. There is a new town every 10 kilometres on a
drive past the local canals and muddy fields. You are sure to have acquaintances or even
friends in the next town who meet every week maybe at a common church or for one of the
numerous festivals of Kerala.

St. Thomas Fine Arts is situated in Chapakulam, near the St. Mary’s Church which is one
of the oldest churches in India. The 90 years old workshop is headed by a man named
K.K. Chacko who is also the grandfather of Jacob. There are four especially skilled
workers who are trained to perfection in their art. Years of experience and practice go
behind every stroke made by their uli (pointed tool) which is stuck gently by a hammer
from the top.

After having spent some time at the church, we were guided by our generous houseboat
guide to this place. A small corridor entrance that leads you to the workshop surely
gives an out odd eerie impression on the mind but it’s all worth at the end when you
are exposed to the artistic brilliance inside. We were greeted by Mr. Chacko who was
very kind in taking us with him for a tour of the place, explaining every bit of the
long processes involved throughout the workshop area.

Many of the churches in Kerala & Tamil Nadu give contracts to St. Thomas Fine Arts for
sculpting big and small statues of Mother Mary & Jesus Christ. Every project has a
cardboard prototype with sections divided for their convenience. On the actual statue,
these are in turn dealt with some seriously focussed hours of soft hammering, according
to the prototype.

Apart from this, there is a small showroom that exhibits a number of hand crafted
articles based on Lord Ganesha, Lord Krishna, Elephants, Boats and many other things
which are an integral part of Kerala – God’s Own Country. The showroom attracts mainly
the foreigners during the tourist season and the prices shoot high during those days.
The fine arts shop has got its own importance in the area. No doubt why Jacob returned
back to help his grandfather take forward the century old business after 6 long years,
having left at the age of 16 for higher studies.

It’s always intriguing to learn something about the heritage artistic skills which are
inherited from our ancestors over centuries. It’s an altogether awe-inspiring experience
to see how Gods are made in God’s Own Country.