Monday, June 23, 2008

Hindu Rituals at Baby Birthday Party

Last weekend we were invited to a birthday party for a one-year-old baby at our residence hotel. It was a lot of fun and really interesting. I’m not sure the birthday girl knew what was going on but she definitely knew she was the center of attention. She grinned from ear to ear whenever she saw one of the many still or video cameras.

The guests were mostly young families of India American software engineers who have recently been relocated from places like Sunnyvale, San Jose, and Sacramento by companies like Intel, Cisco, and IBM. Before that they had acquired advanced degrees at such universities as Michigan, Cal Berkeley, and Louisiana State. Many had done their undergraduate work at prestigious Indian universities like IIT, reputed to be even more selective than Harvard.
The conversation was about cashing out of houses in California with the tough real estate market there, waiting for sea freight to arrive in India, and struggling to get houses and apartments up graded and furnished while they reside in temporary housing here at the Halcyon. The big shock is that an equivalent house to what they sold would cost more than the California selling price (sometimes over a million U.S. dollars) in Whitefield’s luxury sub divisions like Palm Meadows or Ozone. (See my blog post, “Bangalore Lifestyles” from May 29, 2008 for photos of Ozone:

Much of the party was familiar, with face painting, games for children of all ages (and even one for the adults,) decorations, party favors and a piƱata! These are all things you would be likely to see at many kids’ party in California. The young woman hennaing hands offered we women a special treat. I got one of my hands painted beautifully, and it remains vivid today.

The most interesting thing was a ritual that the baby’s grandmother and some of the other women performed. As one of the women sang a traditional song, the baby’s grandmother, who was holding a flame, moved the smoke toward the child, being held by her mother. Then many of the guests took their turn performing the same motion, one by one.

The grandmother also laid out some hand made sweets and held the baby’s feet over them as though the child were walking on them. I looked on line to see if these were traditional South Indian rituals and found the following account by a father about his son’s traditional birthday celebrations, which sounded very similar to what I had seen:

“My mother would conduct a little ceremony called the aarti, which requires the birthday boy to sit on a chair or a low stool while she holds an oil lamp before him. He would cup his hands at a safe distance over the flames to receive its warmth and energy and then join them in salute to the flame. Fire, as you might know, is symbolic of the sacred sun for Hindus, which in turn represents life. Therefore, Hindus do not snuff out the flame but keep it alive to symbolize longevity….. She would then complete the ceremony by wishing him life's sweetness with a piece of candy popped into his mouth.”

As I watched this baby being transferred from guest to guest, I realized that her family and friends adore this child. I had seen this same love projected by families in every strata of Indian society. Those who can’t afford a party like this one still find ways to make children feel valued and appreciated.

Here are some other photos I have taken of children with loving family members during my stay in South India.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Viewing Big Game at Two Indian National Parks

Bannerghatta National Park, less than 25 kilometers from Bangalore, has got to be one of the best attractions of that city. I went with my friends the Raos. It was a lot of fun to experience the joy in the faces of Ramya, 8 and Shreya, 4 as the two of them, their mother and myself, all enjoyed the exceptional animal viewing.

The part of Bannerghatta that is unexceptional is the zoo-like area, where animals live in cages. What sets the park, and the experience apart is how they have used the 25,000 acres of space to allow visitors to see animals in a natural setting.

For under $4 U.S. visitors climb on a specially modified bus for a nearly one hour safari tour of the park. The glass windows may be opened but are screened for safety, except for holes just big enough to point a camera lens through. Security is obviously not taken lightly.

These are among the wildlife we saw at close range without bars or fences:

Himalayan Black Bears
White Tigers

Kazeranga National Park, which I visited a few months ago, is in the far northeast region of Assam on the banks of the Brahmaputra River. Kazeranga, with 430 square kilometers (166 square miles) is a World Heritage Site. It has two thirds of the world’s Great One-horned Rhinoceroses and the highest number of tigers in a protected area anywhere.

We weren’t lucky enough to see a tiger, but we did see many rhino at close range, both on a jeep safari the afternoon of our arrival, and an elephant safari early the next morning.

During the jeep safari we asked our guide to query our seasoned driver if a rhino had ever attacked his vehicle. He told us that he had been driving for 38 years and yes, it had happened once.
“When did that happen?” our guide asked.
“Yesterday,” the driver answered.
Our guide asked again to make sure he wasn’t misinterpreting the response, because the two men spoke different native languages. It turned out to be true, confirmed later by the manager of the wilderness camp we were staying in.

The rhino had attacked and turned over the vehicle (which was still in the shop for repairs as we were asking the hard questions) and had injured the occupants. The family of four tourists from another region of India had all ended up in the hospital with, thankfully, only minor injuries.

Hindu Worship in High Tech World of Whitefield

Last week I was lucky enough to accompany devotees of Sathya Sai Baba to an event described as a darshan (vision of a deity or saint) at Brindavan in Kadugodi, Whitefield, This is a suburb of Bangalore that is also known as a high tech center. It was an amazing experience, attended by thousands of people, many of them from all over the world.

As with the ISKCON Temple (see my post from Monday, May 26, 2008 “India’s Religious Tapestry: Bangalore’s Krishna Temple and Beyond”) shoes first have to be removed before entering the compound, and all bags and cameras have to be left behind. Women are expected to wear a shawl. Since I wasn’t, the lady at the bag check window loaned me one.

We women went to one side of the giant open-sided enclosure, which was decorated with tinsel and what looked like Christmas balls, and the men went to the other. Efficient women wearing yellow and red-orange saris showed us to a place on the hard marble floor. (Those unable to sit on the floor had the option of sitting in folding chairs at the back of the space.)

For a long time we sat in silence, contemplating the larger than life sized photos of the wild haired guru (wearing his signature long red robe) that decorated the stage. Then the musicians began to play and sing Hindu devotional songs (bhajan.) After they sing and play a refrain, the crowd repeats it, the pace accelerating rapidly throughout the session. I could not see the men’s side, but in my area women of all ages, most dressed in their best silk saris, adorned by gold bangles and earrings, clapped wildly to the beat of the repeated refrain.

When the music had reached a near fever pitch, several men wearing all white wheeled the octogenarian’s wheelchair onto the stage. At this point the women whose job it was to keep order had their work cut out for them due to the nearly universal attempt by the group to move forward. The music continued for some time, as Sathya Sai Baba sat looking beatifically into the hugely enthusiastic crowd.

Shortly thereafter more men in white appeared with large pots, which they handed to other volunteers. These contained individually-wrapped sweets, which were distributed to the groping hands of the women surrounding me.

The darshan take place both morning and evening in this place when Sathya Sai Baba is in attendance, during the hot summer months. The rest time he is usually in his primary residence at Prashanthi Nilayam (abode of highest peace,) Puttaparthy, Andhra Pradesh.

Originally a small village, the town now has an extensive university complex, two museums, a planetarium, a railway station, a hill-view stadium, an administrative building, an airport, and an indoor sports stadium, all due to the popularity of the spiritual leader. He is considered by his followers to be an avatar and the reincarnation of the saint Sai Baba of Shirdi.

According to the Sathya Sai Organization, ( there are an estimated 1,200 Sathya Sai Baba Centers in 114 countries worldwide. The number of adherents is estimated by experts at around six million, but sometimes quoted by followers as up to 100 million. A site you can visit for more visuals of the darshan is:

Monday, June 16, 2008

By Special Request: More on Nagaland

I have been asked by some of John’s Indian colleagues to talk about my visit, four months ago, to Nagaland. Sitting at the computer in the comfort of our lovely serviced apartment in Bangalore, it is hard to remember that, even though both places are part of India, these two locations are worlds apart.

To start the discussion, I recommend going to my first blog of May 23, 2008: “Incredible India: Entrances Compared” to read about the difficulties my photographer friend Terri and I had in entering the restricted Nagaland, even with the required permits, and to look at a few photos. I’ll continue from there by quoting some excerpts from my daily journal: February, 2008.

We spent our first chilly night in Kohima, Nagaland’s main city, and then were off on a two-hour bumpy and windy ride to the small village of Tuophema for the festival of Sekrenyi. Before we left, our guide Jimmy called a friend of his, Tonlo, a stylish veterinarian with recently tinted red hair, and invited him to join us. He is a well connected member of the tribe we were visiting, the Angami, one of the 14 major tribal groups of Nagaland.

When we arrived, some women in traditional dress were singing the mournful chant that we heard everywhere. Tonlo introduced us to a lovely well-dressed lady who invited us to a VIP reception at her village home, a big house that that was rivaled only in size by the Christian church at the top of a nearby hill. (The vast majority of Nagas are Christian, having been converted by missionaries who began arriving there in the 50s.)

We later found out that this was the home of Neiphiu Rio who had been Chief Minister until President’s Rule was imposed on Nagaland in January 2008, and was running again. He is a member of the Nagaland People’s Front, which joined other Naga regionalist parties and the state branch of the BJP to form the Democratic Alliance of Nagaland, a coalition that in 2003 brought the 10-year-long rule of the Indian National Congress to an end. (Note: a few days after we left in March 2008, he again beat the Congress Party in an election that was not without controversy or violence.)

We were treated as honored guests by the Rio family and friends and invited to partake of bottled beer, hard liquor and snacks. These included deep fried bugs, liver, pig intestines, and hard salty dried beef, the only thing I was brave enough to try. Later we were invited to a buffet lunch of rice, dahl, and boiled meat (apparently the favorite dish of the Nagas; everywhere we went during festival and election celebrations we saw men sitting on the ground cutting up meat and cooking it in huge pots over wood fires.) After lunch, because we were the only foreigners present, a handsome young TV anchorman from Delhi who was there to cover the election interviewed us on camera.

The festival was disappointing because so much effort was going into the election, but we did see processions of men in local traditional dress who, after arriving at the tribal gathering place, loudly shot off their rifles one by one. The women, in their simple outfits and lovely beads, took part in competitions for spinning and throwing pots. There was alos a basket weaving competition.

My favorite activity was a unique game. Several rats were staked with numbers attached to the stakes. The same numbers were propped up in front of rocks quite a distance from the rats. For a few rupees, participants purchased a few stones to be thrown at the numbers. When they hit a number, they got the appropriate rat, considered a culinary delicacy. A couple of the winners turned their prizes over to their pre-school sons who carried them, squirming, by their tails.

Much of our time in Nagaland was spent visiting villages, hanging out with the tribal people, and learning about their traditions. We were always accepted warmly and offered rice beer and often boiled meat served on leaves. One of our most interesting visits was to Shangyu Village. Along the route we found several old men with facial tattoos indicating that they had been headhunters. That practice was outlawed in the 50s but probably continued in the remote regions for another 20 years. The old men wear necklaces with brass heads to indicate how many actual heads they took back in the day.

Because on that particular day the Congress Party was staging a political rally, we were lucky that we not only got to meet the Angh of the village (headman) but all of the elders. When pick up trucks of spirited young men began arriving at the hilltop village, they suggested we leave because they thought the scene might turn ugly. This was only one example of how the impending election affected our visit to Nagaland. The enhanced military presence plethora of election advisors made travel extremely uncomfortable and difficult. But it could have been more difficult without these groups, since there probably would have been more factional incidents.

For travelers who are interested in tribal cultures and can tolerate the inconvenience of the lack of comforts and infrastructure (especially if there is no election in progress) I recommend making this trip. I can’t think of too many other places in the world today where you can see relatively unadulterated tribal cultures at such close range.