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Splendor and Rubble Part Two

Jaipur and the Monkey Temples

After leaving the Taj, we were off to Jaipur with a stop at another Mughal treasure, Fatehpur Sikri, a small city from where Akbar ruled for about 15 years before water shortages shut the site down and moved everything back to Agra. Nice planning...

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The king's private meeting room where he met with ministers.

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Hanging out on the steps of the Jami Masjid, the large mosque associated with the palace complex.

A little history of this place (swiped from wikipedia). Akbar had inherited the Mughal Empire from his father Humayun and grandfather Babur. During the 1560s he rebuilt the Agra Fort and established it as his capital. He had a son and then twins, but the twins died. He then consulted Salim Chishti the sufi saint who lived as a recluse in the small town Sikri near Agra. Salim predicted that Akbar would have another son, and indeed one was born in 1569 in Sikri. He was named Salim to honor the saint and would later rule the empire as Emperor Jahangir. The following year, Akbar, then 28 years old, decided to build a palace and royal city in Sikri, to honor Salim Chishti.

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You might think it would take a while before seeing camels all over the place being used like horses or oxen would seem normal, but in the very arid state of Rajastan, views like these soon were familiar to us.
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Another familiar scene, one thankfully absent from Kerala's roads. At least these cows aren't lying IN the road. The novelty of this scene wore off quickly as well, a little more each time we dodged one of these beasts at full speed.
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This is a more typical view

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While in Jairpur, we stayed at a heritage hotel called Umaid Bhawan, far and away the most interesting accommodations we've enjoyed while traveling in India. The architecture, furniture, and artistic atmosphere is completely classical Rajastani and just wandering around the place was more enjoyable than many of the museums that we visited.

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The hotel had a very atmospheric roof-top restaurant under tents with live music the first night that we were there.
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While in Jaipur, known as the Pink City due the color of paint wash used within the confines of the old city walls, a regular stop is the residence of the Raj of Jaipur, the City Palace. The raj was at one time the king of this area but is now much more a symbolic figure much in the manner of the British royals though with much less money and influence. We toured the buildings and grounds and left fairly indifferent about it all. The most memorable event took place in the weapons museum when we encountered a family from Newburyport (the boy was wearing a Clippers's t-shirt). They remain the only other confirmed Americans that we have met since leaving orientation in Delhi in August.

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This is the backside of the famous Halal Mahal, the five-story ornately terraced facade built by one of the Raj's to allow the royal women the opportunity to view parades and regular city life down below through the shuttered windows without actually being seen themselves. There's a bit of Hollywood to this one - while it is certainly beautiful, it reminds me more of an elaborate set on a movie lot - there's really nothing behind it. Here's the front, taken with a drive-by shot
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No trip to Rajastan is complete without a little shopping - Kuldeep brought us to a huge complex intended for tour buses and foreigners where we were able to survey the crafts and clothes of this region. The girls try out some saris.

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Across from the shops, a ancient lake palace emerges from the waters surrounding it.

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Here comes the milkman...

One consistently jolting aspect of Jaipur and all of the areas in north India that we visited was the lack of adequate infrastructure. Where it appeared that efforts at advancement were underway, projects seemed mostly half started with no signs of recent progress. We were warned but were still continuously surprised by the utterly abysmal condition of the roads, even (or especially) the main ones throughout the cities. The pounding and erosion of heavy rainfall accompanied by continuous heavy traffic certainly takes its toll, but there is little doubt that much of the problem stems from simple neglect. One could quickly surmise financial limitations producing this situation but I read in numerous sources that corruption among public officials plays a major role in sustaining this tragic status quo. This is a land of splendor and rubble, and the splendors are often enhanced by their contrast with the rubble that surrounds them. Ride with us for a bit through the streets of Jaipur:

In the Dilbert comic strip, there is a fictional country called Elbonia where Dilbert's company outsources work . In this country, everyone is always standing in waist-deep mud and blissfully living an ultra-rural lifestyle. The greater Jaipur area may not have had that much mud, but everywhere you look in this whole area, you see debris and rubble - sometimes in piles, sometimes strewn across a wide area, often mixed with mud and litter as well as other assorted kinds of refuse. The place has the feel of a war zone - it is crowded with people living in small hovels sculptured from whatever kinds of trash or junk could be found. For many, home appeared to be a bit of shredded tarp or a few broken planks leaning against a wall.
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The crowded, dirty, seemingly bombed landscape of Jaipur and the people eeking out a bare survival existence gave me pause to think about what an accident of birth one's fortune truly is and how overwhelming a task India faces in trying to create opportunity for so very many people on the edge. There wasn't much conversation in the car as we peered through the glass walls that separated our world from theirs while driving through the miserable outskirts of Jaipur. There wasn't much to say.

Unexpectedly, the most fascinating stop during our time in Jaipur was actually not in Jaipur. Our guide book described a small temple village called Galta that was built into a narrow ravine, was the location of a number of Hindu pilgrimage temples and possessed a local population of around 5000 monkeys. How could we not check out a village with 5000 monkeys? However, there were more than simian attractions in picturesque village of Galta.
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All of the monkey feeding one could possibly want to do could be had just inside the gateway of the village, but we noticed a steady stream of people, many wrinkled, grizzled, colorfully dressed and some soaking wet, coming down the narrow street from the opposite end of the village that wound into a narrowing ravine. So we walked against this traffic until we approached a set of cascades pouring down from a large stone ediface. The cascade was actually a stone stairway flooded by water overflowing from the containment pools built up above.
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After splashing our way to the top, we viewed a large pool lined by busy and colorful bathers enjoying the greenish water that had been freshened some by the previous night's rains. The stairs continued upward to yet another constructed pool with a small temple perched above it on the opposite side. Here, more people, both locals and pilgrims, gave offerings at the temple and washed their bodies in the pools and their laundry on the steps.

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Cricket in the temple courtyard.
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We arranged a marriage for Elena

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The whole view was truly surreal and while we don't really blend in very well anywhere in India, we were truly standing out in this scene. Being fascinated voyeurs of what was to the locals an ordinary scene, we were treated with mild curiosity and friendliness with numerous requests to be in photos and to shake hands while trading smiles. Galta was not originally on our "must see" list for our swing through the Golden Triangle but it left us with some of our most vivid memories.

The evening's entertainment was a widely advertised magic show at the local auditorium. No photography was allowed, not that a camera could capture magic inside anyway. The show was advertised as a spectacle and lived up to its billing - presented in Hindi, we were treated to a virtual history tour of magical illusions. Nearly every one of the bits we witnessed has been long retired by now in other parts of the world. After an hour and a half of blaring music, seizure inducing strobes, and half-heartedly executed worn out tricks, we took advantage of the intermission to make our escape. However, Houdini would have had a tough time getting out of the theater through the locked iron gates that had been chained and padlocked shut. It took a few minutes to find the person with the key to let us out. Apparently, fire codes are a little more liberal in Jaipur. Our very own disappearing act was the best trick of the evening

After a second night in Jaipur, we had to close the triangle and head back toward Delhi. Along the way, we stopped in shortly to the Amber Fort complex to have a look at the spectacular hilltop fortress.
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There were a couple of ways to get to the fort including foot, autorickshaw, and elephant, but a combination of time crunch and fort fatigue left us all content to do a little shopping in village and admire the fort from a distance. From where we watched, a continuous parade of elephants ambled by on their way to lug gleeful bands of tourists up the narrow road to the fort. We decided to catch our elephant ride another time.
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Our four days riding the perimeter of the Golden Triangle was truly memorable and it is no mystery why this route is one of the most traveled in India. Having made the journey after only one week in India, the experience was particularly impressive. Departing from Delhi the next day to arrive here in Kerala jolted us once more - India is a country of many diverse and striking faces.

Posted by SteveJenn 10:05 Comments (1)

Hostel Outing to Thenmala

Mugged by monkeys in India's first "ecopark"

Every Friday afternoon when the day students board the buses and head home to start their weekends, a large number resident students return to their hostels (dorms) and hope for something interesting to happen over the weekend. A couple of weekends ago, the duty teachers organized a day long trip to Thenmala, a small town a couple of hours away, for a visit to India's first planned "ecotourism" establishment park. Hanging with the kids for the day in woods seemed to offer the promise of adventure of one sort or another, so of course, we were in.

The departure was about 45 minutes late due to some logistical issues involving loading of food and space for passengers. Specifically, we had 55 people for a 48 person bus. Fortunately, logistical snafus such as these are much easily remedied in India than they would be in the US. The solution - the smaller kids sit on the laps of the bigger kids. No problem.
On the bus to Thenmala

On the bus to Thenmala


Starting to feel queezy

Starting to feel queezy

If you read the earlier blog entry about our trip to Cochin, you'll remember a car sickness episode with Elena in one of the TRINS vehicles on the way to the train station. We felt bad about messing up the car, but after the two hour bus ride to Thenmala with 50 plus kids, I've come to realize that a few puking kids are a standard component of any TRINS journey over an hour long. We had three kids heave on the way so I figured that our own little incident was by now lost among the many other occasions when school vehicles required a good swabbing after a trip.

After winding through some beautiful hilly countryside, we arrived in the village of Thenmala and when I saw the sign on the central rotary of main street, my suspicions about the caliber of this park, which is only a few years old, were confirmed.
Can you feel the pulse?

Can you feel the pulse?

Our drive up the narrow, trash-strewn, pot-holed road left us at the park facilitation center where we off loaded and had some breakfast under a gazebo that doubled as a planetarium. With an assortment of baseball sized planets dangling out of scale from the light bulb sun, I was reminded of many a middle school astronomy project. Breakfast brought from school consisted of slices of bread along with small pads of butter and jam, some biscuits and cookies, and paper cups of juice to wash it all down. Breakfast in the eco-park - what nice way to start the day. As kids finished up and dispersed for a little local exploration, I looked around the outside perimeter of the gazebo and saw dozens of little foil butter wrappers and crumbled paper cups scattered about the ground. I was stunned. We've been observing the general filth and trashiness of India since we arrived in India but I guess I wanted to believe that our Indian kids were different from all the others. I climbed atop my soap box and gave them a talk about their responsibility for taking care of their beautiful places and they quickly cleaned things up, but I could see I was bumping up against a cultural divide. Trashing main street India is one thing but trashing the eco-park tested my tolerance for cultural diversity regarding the practice of littering.

After breakfast, an eco-park bus pulled up and loaded us in to be shuttled with our guide to a hiking area nearby. For some of the kids (not unlike their American counterparts), the hike amounted to a forced march, at least at the beginning. Once we got into the woods and started to walk a bit, their griping subsided.
Into the wild

Into the wild

Continuing with my theme taking care of the environment, I was very public and deliberate as I picked up bits of trash along the trail and stuffed into the side pockets of my day pack. Leadership by example I thought. Great idea, accept for one variable that I overlooked having not encountering it in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. About 15 minutes into a our hike, a small troop of four or five monkeys made an appearance to the delight of the kids.Local thug scanning for victims

Local thug scanning for victims


Create your own caption

Create your own caption

Encounters with monkeys usually start out as exciting, fun events but can turn quickly when the creatures begin to express their criminal intent.

I tried to distance myself from the biggest one who was pawing the exposed flesh of my legs and growling, with an occasional flash of his inch long incisors to make his point. He might as well have been waving a snub-nosed revolver at me. He definitely wanted something in my pack and was persistent in his efforts to get to it despite my reasoned protests. Then the light bulb flicked on and it occurred to me what was going on. Both sides of my pack were stuffed with candy wrappers and other food related trail junk gathered during my public display of civic responsibility. The next scene my students got to watch featured me sprinting up the trail far enough ahead of the hairy hoodlum to allow the speedy emptying of a small pile of trash onto the trail's edge hoping to gain relief from my simian pursuer. DOn't they alsways instruct the tellers to give the bank robbers whatever they want? I'm not sure what was more humiliating - being harassed by this long tailed thug or having to dump a sizable pile of trash on the side of the trail not 30 minutes after delivering a rather eloquent lecture on preserving the pristine nature of the ecopark.

One final insult from the miscreants missed being captured on video by just a few seconds. Two of the monkeys were walking along side Elena just strolling along with her, much to Elena's delight. Suddenly, an uncontrollable urge consumed the larger apparently male monkey and he jumped on the back of the smaller apparently female monkey and began to express his unbridled affection for her. I so wish I could have captured the transformation of reaction that washed across Elena's face as she witnessed this sudden turn of events and shrieked off down the trail with a mixture of realization, shock, and who knows what other emotion. After that, the monkeys thankfully went a different way, perhaps to have a cigarette or something.

Our arrival at the lake marked the half way point of our five kilometer stroll. Here, much entertainment was had skipping stones and seeing who could chuck a rock far enough to reach the other side. The forest in the area was quite dense in places and offered may unexpected and unusual sights. U-turn roots

U-turn roots

Tarzan territory

Tarzan territory

Serene lake in the reserve

Serene lake in the reserve

Rock skipping at the lake was a highlight

Rock skipping at the lake was a highlight

One of the creepy crawlies

One of the creepy crawlies

Lena and the banyan tree

Lena and the banyan tree

Keep an eye on where you're walking

Keep an eye on where you're walking

Hostel boys

Hostel boys

Following a long lunch in a restaurant too small to seat all of us at once, we were off to the adventure sport section of the park for some high flying excitement. One way to reach the adventure sports center was to follow the aerial staircase up the side of the hill climbing a structure advertised to be "based on canopy walks" in other tropical countries. The architectural design of the walkway was really quite impressive but the real excitement was generated by the very real possibility that one of the numerous rotted wooden steps could crumble beneath a foot at any instant plunging one a great distance to the forest floor below. This might have been the most adventurous part of the whole trip.
TRINS group photo

TRINS group photo

Pseudo canopy walk

Pseudo canopy walk

Bonus aerial view

Bonus aerial view

The real adventure on the adventure walk

The real adventure on the adventure walk

Spectacular walkway

Spectacular walkway

The adventure park afforded one the chance to slink along a cable out over a green algae pond while dangling from a climbing harness as well as the thrill of gliding through the canopy on the "flying fox" a slow motion zip-line that launched riders on their 45 second at a rate of about one flyer every ten minutes. Of course, most of our 50 kids wanted to try it out. Breaking too soon resulted in the rider stalling somewhere out over the pond requiring an attendant to paddle a little boat out to below the rider, receive a dropped rope, then pull the rider along the balance of the cable all the while trying to paddle their boat to shore. Much sitting around ensued - mercifully, darkness grounded the flying fox before everyone in line completed their run on the world's first geriatric zip-line.

Hanging out in the adventure park

Hanging out in the adventure park


Lena awaits her rope climb

Lena awaits her rope climb


Clipping in

Clipping in


How high can alligators jump

How high can alligators jump


Mari's turn

Mari's turn


Like a pro

Like a pro


Coming back

Coming back


Riding the fox

Riding the fox


Slo-mo decent through the trees

Slo-mo decent through the trees

The kids seemed too tired to be car sick on the way home a good place for them to be at the end of the day. It was an enjoyable outing and though I've poked a little fun at the Thenmala ecopark for it's second rate execution, it is encouraging to know that officials in Kerala are thinking that environmentally friendly projects such as this one are worth developing. Perhaps the park represents a small step in the evolution of Indian thinking about the possibilities of eco-tourism and sustainable environmental conservation.

Posted by SteveJenn 06:10 Comments (0)

In search of a five day school week

Astrologers square off against government officials on Friday holiday

Perhaps one of the most unexpected adjustments to teaching in Kerala has been the frequency with which school is called off as well as the frequency with which school events are rescheduled on short notice. In fairness, I believe that we might have hit an unusual streak even for TRINS and Kerala, but tonight's news at dinner that Friday may be declared a school holiday due to the advice of local astrologers (not astronomers, mind you) just takes it to a new level. Last week, we lost a day due to local floods and part of a day due to a school "food fair" fundraiser. The week before, we lost half of a day due to the announcement of a controversial court ruling. Next Friday is Sports Day, no classes. These events don't even include the numerous religious holidays.

Here's the deal - Hindus are in the midst of celebrating Navaratri which lasts for nine nights (nava=nine, rati=nights). Navaratri is the worship of the three divine goddesses, Saraswati (Goddess of learning and speech), Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth and prosperity), and Durga (Goddess of strength and courage). In Kerala, it's a pretty low-key affair for the most part. In other parts of India which are more dominantly and traditionally Hindu, this period of celebration is a raucous nine days. One of the other Fulbright teachers up in Ahmedabad in the very Hindu state of Gujarat reported that loud blasting music and Garba dancing began the night before last and goes on all night (outside his apartment building) as people dance and party in the streets.

No such revelry occurs in Kerala, however, the last three days of Navaratri are celebrated as a celebration called Saraswati Puja. Puja, in general, means prayers or offerings and devout Hindus offer pujas daily at their local temple or home shrine. To honor Saraswati, students bring their books to the temple (or just stash them at home) on the first day and don't open them again until the morning of the third day as an offering to Saraswati. That means no studying or academic work during this time which makes conducting school difficult. However, we thought we were catching a break this year since the three day celebration ran from Friday to Sunday and thus not conflicting with school, or so I thought.

I got a sense that something was up this morning when one of the students told me that there was not going to be classes on Friday because of the Puja holiday. I had just minutes before come from the Monday morning faculty briefing during which the very latest event schedule changes had been reviewed and there was absolutely no mention whatsoever of the possibility of a holiday on Friday. In fact, it was stated that on this Friday, some midterm exams would take place since the Sports Day that was originally planned for this Friday had been moved to next Friday (meaning no classes next Friday, either). So I bet the kid that he was wrong. I should known better.

Here's the issue - the state government had no intentions of a school holiday given that Puja started on a Friday evening. However, the general consensus of the prominent Indian astrologers is that according to the stars, there is a mistake in the calendar and that the puja should start on Thursday evening. So now the government officials are in a quandry - do they declare a holiday for Friday keeping in mind that local elections are coming up soon and they need that Hindu vote or ignore the advice of the astrologers and proceed with school as planned are risk celestial retribution. The general consensus around here is that they will not tempt astronomical (or electoral) fate and will call it off. I'm quickly learning to suspend my personal sense of logic and go with the local consensus on these things. The big questions is when they will decide to make the call - some time Thursday evening would be my guess.

Regardless of what happens on Friday, there is a ceremony on Vijaya Dashami (third day - Sunday) that I think is really cool. After the scool books are put back into circulation, a ritual called Ezhuthiniruthu or Initiation of Writing takes place in which little children are ritually initiated into their formal education before entering nursery school. The child is made to write for the first time on the rice spread in a plate with the index finger, guided by an elder of the family or by a reputed teacher. The little ones will have to write “Hari Shri Ganapataye Namah” and recite the same to mark the auspicious entry in to the world of education. This event is considered a memorable event in the life of a person and there's something about it that really resonates with me. I'm hoping to find a temple where this ceremony is taking place on Sunday and check it out. If nothing else, just seeing the little Indian kids will be worth the trip - they are so damn cute! For a more formal explanation of this ceremony, check out this link

So, will the astrologers lead me to shelve my lesson plans and books on Friday? Stay tuned...

This just in - astrologers win! No classes on Friday.

Posted by SteveJenn 08:03 Comments (1)

Gleaming Marble Lotus

A Visit to the Santhagiri Ashram

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A few weeks ago while the kids and Steve were in class I was invited along on a class trip for some math students in the 7th and 9th standards to visit a nearby Ashram. We were going to see a beautiful new "Parnasala" that had recently been dedicated. This impressive lotus shaped structure is a mausoleum built for the remains and belongings of the Guru.

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When we arrived we were told that the design for the structure came to the Guru in visions and that there was no architect for the project. They also explained to the math students that it is the tallest single story structure in the world. Hmm...I stood there scratching my head, puzzled by this proclamation. Inside there is smaller polished wood alcove with a solid gold statue of the guru with a clearly defined ceiling above it supported by pillars. The children were then given all the important measurements about the building to copy down (and probably later tested on). I was introduced to the engineer for the project. He explained that of course there were designers and engineers and he wasn't sure exactly what they meant by the height thing and that they need to work on what they tell people when they visit. So classicly Indian. Regardless, as you can see it is quite stunning.

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Some elephants were brought in by their mahouts and made to bow down before the statue of the Guru.

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I spent a while walking around the complex speaking with the sculptor of the statue who is also a film maker. I asked questions about the beliefs of the devotees. He talked a lot about not needing organized religions and the "Oneness" of God, love, truth etc. Sounded interesting and I have been hoping to find a Guru. We walked a bit further and he said that Guru merged into the "Plane of Primordial Consciousness" ten years ago, but they believe that Guru is still with them. I was shown the thatched hut where Guru used to live which is kept ready for him each day and the vehicles that he was transported in. In fact some men were offering up incense near the car as they had just returned from "driving" him around.

They are so dedicated to Guru because their spirituality is based on the Guru-Shishya (disciple) relationship. They don't have any writings on the teaching of Guru. I bought a few pamphlets in English to try to learn more but they are mostly descriptions of clairvoyance, astral planes and visions of Guru. From the website it says:

"human beings have the possibility of full awakening or realization, but they need the guidance of a Guru who has transcended to the highest spiritual stage. This alone helps in spiritual advancement and not religious dogmas and rituals. When Guru’s words are followed, the disciple experiences them as Truth. Thus the revelation: "Word is Truth,Truth is Guru, Guru is God"."

Well for a teaching that says that you do not need religious dogmas and rituals it appears to this humble outsider that their lives are filled with them. One interesting belief is that families suffer from the consequences of errors in one’s ancestral lineage and worship practices. They can been saved by the invoking of Guru’s intercession on the astral planes to purify ancestral souls and deities worshipped by the family, thus creating children born with greater virtue and luck. Guru envisioned a spiritual and cultural renaissance in the world through the birth of such purified progeny and high souls. (After some of the experiences Steve and I have been having with our 11 year old progeny lately I thought about doing a few poojas and making some offerings to Guru.)

Interestingly, I noted on the website a long list of the Offerings and the Ceremonies Rates, including:

Pushpanjali A ‘Floral Offering’ performed according to a person’s birth star. It is done for the removal of ‘karma dosha’ (ill effects of bad actions) from one’s ‘jeeva’ or life force. Rs. 5.
Special Pooja/ Akathupooja A special prayer to resolve major problems and to pray for goodness for oneself and the family. Rs. 75.
Aravana Payasam Sweet Dessert Rs. 500.
Pal Payasam Milk Dessert for Lunch Rs. 5000.
Panchamratham Sweet Preparation with honey, ghee, fruit etc. Rs. 1500.
Haara Samarpanam Flowers and garlands are offered to Guru on special occasions and to pray for a change in one’s luck. Rs. 250.
Kaadul Poovadil Ear piercing ceremony for girls. Rs. 75.
Adi Gurupooja The first ‘Gurupooja’ or ‘shuddhi’ (purification) is performed generally one year after the death of a person for cleansing the ‘jeeva’ of its ‘dosham’ (faults). Rs. 10000.
Pithrushuddhi Cleansing or rehabilitation of ancestral souls (manes). Rs. 10000.
Pithrushuddhi and Devashuddhi Cleansing or rehabilitation of ancestral souls and other negative spiritual influences . Rs. 25000.
Pithrushuddhi, Devashuddhi, Kutumba Maranam Cleansing or rehabilitation of negative ancestral souls and other spiritual influences including family curses. Rs.75000.
Poorna Mochanam and Mukthi of Pithrus, Devas, Kutumba Maranam Complete liberation and salvation of ancestral souls, astral deities and family curses and sins. Rs. 1,10,000.

From a 5 rupee floral offering to complete liberation for 1,10,000 rupees ($2444). Perhaps like going thru a car wash, would you like just a basic or the works?

I guess for now I will stick with my faithful friends at The Congregational Church in Exeter, NH... whom I miss very much.

Oh yes, following this list it notes that "Devotees can make the offerings through DD/Cheque/Money Order or through Bank transfer" and gives instructions on how to do so. Am I sounding cynical?

At the end of our visit we all processed down some steps into a dark, maze-like series of makeshift displays. The words were written in Malayalam but I think it had something to do with good and evil, demons, gods and Guru.

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Just in case you missed the architectural masterpiece outside they included a picture of it at the end.

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Posted by SteveJenn 00:24 Comments (1)

Plying the Kuttanad Backwaters

A day trip worthy of the Amazing Race

Ask anyone who knows something about Kerala what the "must-see" or "must-do" things are, and you will always be told that renting a houseboat for a trip through the backwaters region of Kuttanad is a must-do. Since learning that I was coming to Kerala, the boat trip through Kerala's sub-sea level rice belt has always been one of the trips that I most looked forward to. A truly unique experience, we had been for weeks discussing when the best time to go would be. After prolonged debate and hesitation, we decided that this past weekend was the right time.

Why now? The month of October marks the fringe of the high season for tourism in Kerala. Accordingly, prices on these boat tours rise and continue to rise to their highest rates during the Christmas through January period. As most people do, I had mentally pictured boarding our very own two bedroom house boat at noon on Saturday, slowly drifting through the canals of Kerala's own Venice (without the buildings) until sunset, anchoring and enjoying a dinner on board centered around freshly caught fish before retiring for the night in our cozy little bedrooms, lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the waves against our bedroom walls. After a filling breakfast, our vessel would slowly chug back to our home port with many fond memories.

However, the above itinerary does not come cheaply. The best price that I was quoted was 12000 rupees or about $266.00, not including the cost of transportation of the 150 km trip to the pier and then back. Having just charged a bunch of flights and hotels for our upcoming
Christmas break excursion, the thought of paying that kind of money to sleep in a bed on a docked boat diminished in appeal. For a day trip, we could get a boat for 1000 rupees/hour and sleep in our free beds at home, so that is what we decided to do. Seemed like a good plan...
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The above picture gives a view of what most of the houseboats look like - ours was no different. Most people book them for a 22 hour period that includes sleeping on board. Our boat had two bedroms had we wanted them.
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The boats, called kettu vallams, are converted rice barges previously used to transport the main crop of the region. From what I've read, the techniques used in constructing these vessels are hundreds if not thousands of years old. Our Rough Guide travel guide adds, "Amazingly, no nails or any other artificial substances are used in the construction process. Seasoned planks of anjili (angelin) wood, a local relative of the breadfruit tree, are lashed together using cotton or coir ropes soaked in resin before the hull is waterproofed with cashew oil". The boats chug along during daylight hours but tie up somewhere as soon as the sun sets until the morning. One of the first unexpected surprises was revealed as we pulled away from our pier and needed to plow through a dense blanket of water hycinth, an invasive species that appears to be a real problem in the backwaters. It seems there is no place on the planet these days where aquatic ecosystems aren't under stress from some sort of invasive species.
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The bow section of the boat provides a large mattress for reclining (Mari claimed this turf early on) as well as a couple of viewing chairs just behind the pilot. The boat chugs along slowly and offers a very relaxing glide along the shore of Lake Vembanad. The geography of this area is truly unique. It's known as Kerala's "rice belt", nothing particular about that except that the rice paddies are mostly below sea level. How is this possible in a coastal environment? A whole lot of canals! As we plowed along the waterways that jut off of the lake, it becomes quickly apparent that the water level of the boat is higher than the rice fields on the other side of the long walls lining the canals. It is on these narrow strips of wall and supporting earth, in most places not more than 10 feet wide, that the local people build homes.
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This video clip gives a better feel for the geography of the area:

The Kuttanad region is sandwiched between the Arabian Sea and the mountain range known as the Western Ghats. Monsoons blowing in from the west over the ocean encounter the mountains which wrings them out of water and flushes a whole lot of slit and nutrients into this region, thus its fertility. Historically, those that don't raise rice and other crops made their living by fishing.
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We were underway about an hour when it was time for lunch to be served, so we pulled lakeside and enjoyed a meal prepared in the back of the boat.
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Regrettably, there seems to be no escaping the general trashing that the Indians perform across their amazing country. Even out in this pristine area, the collective lack of an aesthetic sense of environmental cleanliness results is piles of trash and rubbish scattered wherever there is space to dump. I was chatting with an equally disgusted Indian colleague just yesterday about this issue and he expressed a hope that as more Indians are able to afford to travel to developed nations and observe the general cleanliness that is typical in these places, they will return with an interest in rectifying the problem. In the short term, I'm not hopeful.
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The ride was a lazy stroll through a beautiful area. However, we were not the only tourists enjoying this experience. As roads spread across the region, the need for "water trucks" to haul rice diminished and the boats seems to be headed to redundancy and obscurity until a few cleaver entrepreneurs started using them to haul visitors and toursts around. Soon after, bedrooms, dining room, and viewing platforms were added and the success of these boats led to wide-spread repurposing of the boats. Today, over 500 of them ply the waters and the waiting list at the shipyards for a new boat is years long. The result, of course, is heavy traffic filling the canals and rivers.

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It's hard to deny the hypocrisy in resenting the other boats out there diminishing my experience. Unfortunately, there seems to be little regulation of the houseboat industry at the present time with respect to numbers of vessels permitted. Overcrowding is a problem throughout this country - the backwaters region is no exemption.

When I first contemplated our houseboat cruise, I was certain we were going to be overnighters. After a four hour cruise, I think we all shared the feeling that it was long enough to get a feel for the region.
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As we disembarked, we left satisfied without a feeling of regret for not having booked a longer tour (although we actually had). Our backwaters cruise was relaxing and enjoyable, a special interlude in what was a truly memorable day, memorable for many of the wrong reasons. As Paul Harvey used to say, "Now for the rest of the story..."

Part of our reasoning for making a day trip of our cruise was not only to save some rupees on the boat cost but to also save on having to hire a driver for two days. 3.5 hours up, 3.5 hours back, 6 hour cruise = 12 hour day, right? Wrong. We left at 8:00 am and returned to our apartment at 11:30 pm after only a four hour cruise. Do the math - 15.5 hours away from home - four hours on the boat = 11+ hours in the car. Jenn, who is a big fan of The Amazing Race on TV, reminded us that sometimes you get the good drivers, sometimes you don't. We had been pretty lucky up to now, we were due for a dud.

Shaji, a new driver to us, arrived on time at 8:00 for the 3.5 hour trip to Kumarakom in order to reach our boat in time for our 12:00 pm sailing. Jenn noticed early on from the back seat that Shaji was working hard to keep the car going straight. There was a fair amount of play in the steering column - the captain of our houseboat had an easier time keeping it going straight than Shaji had with our car. Perhaps it was the steering that slowed him down, maybe he was just a slow poke, we're not sure, but unlike previous drivers who spent much of the time on the road in the passing lanes (there are several of these on every Indian road regardless of width), Shaji took his time chugging along at around 30 mph - he even pulled over to stop for tea. Back on the road, we continued our slow crawl towards the backwaters region. At about the time we were supposed to be arriving at our boat, we discovered that the route taken by the driver took us an extra 25 km out of the way. That doesn't sound like much but on Indian roads, it's another hour anyway under the best of conditions. It's comparable to driving from Amesbury to North Conway via Portland, ME. What you would not encounter on our way to North Conway is a significant traffic jam due to a religious procession several miles in length nor would you likely encounter a rocky mud track that was barely passable . Once past these trials, we approached our fifth hour in the car. Jenn informed him that we were already an hour late for our boat and asked if he could drive faster. He understood that request - the switch was flipped and he went from 80 year old granny driving to Hollywood stuntman. I was sitting shotgun in the front and simply closed my eyes and prayed. After 20 minutes of Deathrace 2010, Jenn added that we were hoping to make it to the boat alive to which he laughed and slowed down again to previous jaunt.

I thought we were getting close, but it wasn't over yet. As the roads grew smaller and narrower, Shaji twice paused at forks in the road to seemingly flip a mental coin in his head for guidance. I asked "Shaji - do you know where you are going?" The big smile and nod that I received gradually dissipated as we continued into the thickening tropical forest on a road that progressively narrowed like a funnel onto a tiny bridge barely wide enough for a single car. It was at this point that he finally asked for directions. Personally, it was reassuring to know that males across the globe share a common bond in their resistance to stop and ask for directions. We finally arrived at the boat with close to two hours shaved from our planned cruise itinerary but with deep gratitude for having arrived. Fortunately, the distance from the car to the boat didn't tax our atrophied legs too much.

After the cruise, the ride home followed the route we should have followed in the morning, between Kottayam and Trivandrum on one of the nicest, most freshly paved highways I've seen in India. Still, after watching sleepy-eyed Shaji continuously tug on his mustache and wrap his knuckles against his side window, I started interviewing him about his wife and family, childhood memories, favorite cricket team, anything I could think of that a limited-English speaker might understand with the intention of keeping him awake. In desperation, Jenn passed forward the potato chips for him to munch on. Despite the favorable road conditions, this trip that everyone told us took 3.5 hours still took five hours.

It was certainly a day to remember and hopefully once in a lifetime.

Posted by SteveJenn 19:47 Comments (1)

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