Wednesday, February 28, 2007

India pics: Khajuraho

There's not much old Hindu architecture left in north India - the Mughals destroyed most - so Khajuraho was the place for me to discover the surging fountain- or mountain-like shikara roofs, the art nouveau-like ornament, and the wonderful harmony of the carved figures which undulate around them like a dance. Nobody quite knows what these temples (10th-12th century) are about. (Actually the one at right above is 19th century, an ecumenical gesture with spires supposed to look Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim.) Khajuraho's temples are most famous for the fact that some of their many carvings are erotic, but pictures of these carvings out of context decisively lose their meaning, whatever it is. This is not eros masquerading as numen, or trampling on it, and as the balanced busyness of lines of dancers and elephants coiling around the the temples while gods, divine beings, couples and sacred dragons arch and twist in bands above them show, it's something more profound than the numen masquerading as eros.

We saw the finest of Khujuraho's surviving temples (the Mughals destroyed many then seem to have forgotten about the rest) on a rainy day. This turned out to be a good thing, as crowds were limited (this is a big tourist destination, and for more kinds of tourists than one may wish to ponder). Also it seems the sculptures are more beautiful in the rain - you can see them better with the stone darkened by moisture, the fugures not seared by sun and shadow.

I'll leave you to stroll among the temples as we did. Notice that in most cases the columns of carved human and divine figures are separated by recessed carvings of various kinds of dragons. (One picture is a bit salacious, though I find it's rather more funny than titillating.) Remember that you can expand each picture by clicking on it.

India pics: Orchha

And now it's Orchha's turn. (I need to get these out of my system before I forget, or they take over my life!) Orchha was the place where the Bundela kings, after getting booted out of one capital after another, went on a building spree in the 18th century, churning out palaces and temples in amazing profusion. Who actually built them, I wonder? There's nobody left: it's a little town, just a few thousand. And just discovered by tourism ... after we went on to crassly touristified Khajuraho we saw in retrospect that Orchha's on the brink: like untouched Chanderi five years ago, it may teem with predatory touts like Khajuraho in another five.

In order you see:

• the cenotaphs of the Bundela kings (across the Betwa)

• the inside of the Jahangir Mahal (built by the Hindu Bundela king for the Mughal emperor and used for exactly one day)

• the view up toward the deliciously forlorn Lakshmi temple and three scenes of frescoes there (the latter two of battle formations from 17th and, er, 19th centuries)

• the cenotaphs again (we were staying just beneath them)

• a view from the Jahangir Mahal in the other direction, showing a landscape littered with temples

• objects for pilgrims

• another view from the Jahangir Mahal, this one showing a huge monastery-like temple in whose niches brahmins used to sit and chant "om" every morning - surroundsound avant la lettre

• and, finally, one of the frescoes - restored - inside the Jahangir Mahal, the colors somewhat distorted for lack of natural light.

Orchha was, in the end, perhaps my favorite place we went - not that one could possibly top the Taj, or the ghats in Varanasi, etc., and the whole point is to have been many places. But as a place where you could be left on your own to explore, full of impressive and as yet unspoiled wonders, it was lovely.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

India pics: A turn in the country

I spent way too much time yesterday fiddling with the formatting of my post, trying to frame pictures in exactly two lines of text, etc., which is entirely pointless: unless you're using a Mac and Mozilla Firefox, the formatting will turn out differently anyway! So here, all in one go, are some pictures from the area around Chanderi, the charming forgotten town we went to recuperate from Agra, and some scenes from along the Ken River, too (punctuated with grey and red granite at left). You'll find a potter and his family - prehistoric rock paintings - a family of fishermen on a lake surrounded by the green-yellow fields of mustard-dusted wheat we saw shining in irrigated areas everywhere - two crocodiles (not at that same lake as the fishermen) - a trio of birds, including a kingfisher - a stork - a treeful of plum-headed parrots - some 13th century Jain cliff carvings - a langur (a kind of monkey) - a view of Chanderi from the ruins of its fortress - the weird welcome gate of 16th century Chanderi - a scene of one of Chanderi's Friday mosque - a woodland scene (notice that the greenest part has legs) - and a view of one of the many weddings we passed (February being particularly auspicious for weddings)...

India pics: Filled up

Back in Melbourne a day and I still don't know what hit me. In my head catchy Bollywood melodies jangle with memories of temples and towns and rickshaws and rivers and deserts and children and holy men and animals and food and books and flowers and birds ... I feel so saturated with experiences I'm put in mind of the old method of packing as many stones as you can into a container: fill it with big ones first, shaking well; then add smaller ones, which will fill the spaces between the big ones, shaking well; then add smaller still, and so on, and so on. You'll end up close to solid rock.

Maybe I feel so thoroughly filled because, unlike any other place I've been, India has pushed, blurred and in general called in question my bodily boundaries. I'm not referring to getting "Delhi belly" - though having to be constantly vigilant about what's been touched by water, not a friend but an enemy, is certainly part of it - but to things like people grabbing your hands, or coming up to you with red paste on their thumbs making a blessed billboard of your forehead (which seemed to me a terrible violation)...

In any case, here are some more pics. I briefly considered doing thematic postings - animals, temples, calligraphy, etc. - but that would require surveying and sorting the 1100+ photos all at once, which is more than I can imagine doing right now, and probably would make things seem falsely coherent. Instead, I'll follow the route of my travels and try to include big things and small. Today's selection leads to and through Agra, our first stop after Delhi and home of the greatest monuments of Mughal India. The three clustered here are still from Delhi. The first is a picture of an alley in the Old City of Delhi - relatively people-free since it's Sunday. Notice the happy man carrying his tiffin box. The next is of the Jama Masjid in Delhi, largest mosque in India, and the work of the same Moghul emperor responsible for the Taj Mahal. The third shows the platform from which our early morning train to Agra departed.

These two pictures show details from Agra Fort: sandstone carvings on the wall of the palace built for a Hindu princess, on whose gorgeously carved wall (click the picture to see details!) intricate geometrical Muslim patterns try to contain the aesthetic traditions of India. While they are only pretend windows, the charms of the figural seem to be welling up from inside them anyway - and ... overflowing! The floral's accepted as a compromise inside a pavilion for the queen, whose exquisite stonework makes that of the Taj seems crude by comparison (feel free to click this one too!). And then we come to the Taj Mahal, which really truly is not just in a category of its own but beyond category. It seems simply perverse to try to discover a new angle on it. Here it is as seen from the Fort, across the Yamuna (or Jumna) river - the sacred river which meets the Ganges at Allahabad, site of India's biggest pilgrimage. During and after the monsoon I imagine the river would have filled up the whole scrubby riverbed you see here.

Now three pictures of the Taj Mahal from up close. The first is a view across the back side of the high marble platform on which the tomb itself sits, with one of the four minarets and the side-dome of one of the two red and white mosques which flank the tomb. These two little sandstone and marble mosques (actually only one is a mosque and neither is little) are wonders in their own right. Each has a white marble dome like the central tomb's. You can see one of them in the foreground of the picture of the Taj from Agra Fort above. Below is the façade of the other one - the three friends in the doorway show just what grand edifices these are, too! The picture below it is of the tomb itself - notice that the inlaywork flowers are similar to those on the mosque next door, and the Quranic verses which - besides the repeated dome shapes, concave and convex and outlined and the chevron patterns with sometimes inconsistent coloration - form the only ornament of the building. The text, incidentally, is a whole sura describing the throne of God, which suggests to some that with this building the emperor was doing more than just memorializing the mother of his heir; its unprecedented placement off the center of the garden also suggests that his deeper intention was to suggest an analogy of imperial and divine power.

And now I simply must show you the Taj the way you've seen it a thousand times, but it's the way it means to be seen. (You can just make out the domes of the mosque and its twin behind the trees.) Even in the fading light of dusk it draws in the sky above, the world below, and through the stunning symmetry gathers together everything on earth all around. Imperious indeed!

To close, let me explain the picture I started with. It's from the day after we left Agra's troubling mix of architectural purity and urban squalor - the exhilarating view across the vast lake created by the damming of the river Betwa in Madhya Pradesh. The almost ten-mile dam inundated eight-four villages. Look very closely and you'll see some black dots in the distance on the right. They are the tips of the towers of a fortress above one of these towns, visible only in winter. When the monsoon raises the water level back to the red/white line they disappear again.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

India pics: Delhi goodbye hello

I'm off this evening after what now feels like a pretty good first experience of India. It had three acts - the Intrepid tour of timeless India, the shock of the new in Gurgaon, and then a mingling of the two in a strong religious broth in Rajasthan - and a pleasant coda: lovely to have a final weekend just chillin' with my old friend and his family. Feeling anew, indeed, after many years' separation, like the old dear friends we are. I've started going through photos. Well, I've been weeding them out all along with an effort at ruthlessness, and Delhi - Agra - Chanderi - Orchha - Khajuraho - Panna - Chitrakoot - Allahabad - Varanasi - Gurgaon - Jaipur - Amber - Ajmer - Pushkar - Samode in 1000 shots seems not so bad - if still somewhat unwieldy I grant you.

Today I'm just posting six photos from my very first days here, in and around Delhi. (Unusually for me, they all have people in them.) Since I can't move pictures around or interleave them with text from this computer, this list of descriptions will have to do (remember that each can be enlarged by clicking on it):

(1) schoolgirls coming out of the vast bazaar entry of the Red Fort

(2) a security guard who tried to mess up my picture inside the Fort but ended up completing it

(3) an Indian woman taking a picture for (or perhaps of) tourists at Humayun's Tomb, the predecessor monument to the Taj Mahal

(4) an Indian tourist marveling at a ceiling at Qutb Minar (I love this picture)

(5) a manual laborer enjoying the Sunday calm on an Old Delhi street usually thronged with book buyers

(6) guys awaiting a bus before a billboard commemorating one hundred years of Satyagraha (notice the Gandhi symbols - the cartoon outline from behind and the glasses)
More to come!

It's a little strange to be posting these pictures of my first Delhi impressions as I leave, I suppose. Or maybe not: those schoolgirls were coming out just as I was going in. It is in any case a pleasure to look back on these pictures (especially the ones with people in them), and find them already fond and familiar memories. This India feels like a place one could spend more time. And probably should. And very likely will!