Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sexy Temple

Well I sure felt like an old English memsahib yesterday when touring the (in)famous sun temple in Konark, Orissa. While Indian families, including children, milled about me and my guide Sankar calmly described the sexually explicit carvings to me, I was shocked. At one point I even said "Goodness Sankar! You don't need to explain, I can see" and he said "Sorry, sorry", and backed off;  he realised I was thoroughly embarrassed to be witnessing 750 year old pornography 
with a strange man at my side. 

In any case, some emperor built this ridiculous temple 750 years ago to celebrate his victory over the Muslims, and to encourage the birth-rate to increase (as many people had died during the war).
Basically, this temple is an architectural aphrodisiac. NSFW.

A dancer who pees every time it rains

Two guys, one girl

Two girls, one guy (she waits her turn apparently - according to Sankar)

The prayer building (the big one pictured above) is surrounded by twenty-four giant wheels (the hours) and is 'pulled' by seven horses (the days). One side represents day and one side represents night. Initially, the 'main' building was behind the prayer building and was twice as high, 
but it was destroyed hundreds of years ago. 

A day in the life of a warrior babe 

Two men

A man punishes his wife for adultery by cutting her hair off -
a severe punishment usually leading to suicide


Two women

Three women

Some new stones where the temple was falling apart.
Looks like hilariously ineffective censorship.

Looking at the carvings (beautiful saris as always)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Kolkata (part one)

Cookie Factory fire

Workers out the back of a temple

These are photos from about two months ago, but since the internet connectivity in my village was minimal I haven't done a thing with them. Here they are now. I say 'part one' in the title, 'cos I'm returning to that glorious city shortly. I get that people don't like Kolkata and more power to them, but I am in love (and not like how I'm 'in love with everywhere', but a very specific and fierce love which will last my lifetime).

The only Buddhist temple in Kolkata, under renovation

College Street - a street dominated by bookshops

The oldest bookshop in Kolkata

In the same building - The Indian Coffee House Kolkata - presided over by Tagore

Upstairs table

What would you have? I had eggs with tomato and coffee, of course


You better have some strong opinions at the NANDAN Film Centre!

KFC's vegetarian options

My Vege Zinger burger - second only to the Willowbank vege burger
NB: In Kolkata, the KFC I frequented was staffed entirely by hearing impaired people, who used a specially designed menu board to point and ask me which option I wanted. And the vegetarian food was incredible (trash, but just right trash, you know?) KFC = pinko heaven? Who'd guess?!

Here is a cheesy video showing how it's done.

The Indian Museum

Indians crowding around the 'snakes' display and discussing which they have seen


The fashions of India, done by state on Barbie-size models

My dream house

Or this! (Karo cutting a figure in her red sari in front of the Marble Palace)

On the train

From the land of tigers back up to the land of Rhinos

Friday, May 17, 2013

India changed me, maaan

Many people come to India for some kind of spiritual awakening, associating India with all things mystical and religious in nature. Amartya Sen wrote a genius book addressing this association (among other things) and the general side-lining of the strong rationalist, intellectual history of India. But never mind that today. Today I have less than one week left in this village where I've been whiling away the last four months and also my dear friend Karo has just arrived back in Germany, and we've both had cause to reflect on how India changed us (said with syrupy, hippie-like emphasis).

Let me count the ways. 

  1. I got my ears pieced, and now I'm obsessed with earrings. I already have something like a dozen pairs and it's pretty much the biggest decision of my day. This is a radical change, because previously I never considered I might pierce my ears and I certainly never dreamed I'd think plastic, bulbous coral-coloured earrings are awesome. Now I do. But also all the other earrings ever.
  2. In a similar vein, I have started painting my nails for the first time. I never used to do this. I thought nail polish was one of things that just wasn't my "stil" (German word meaning something between 'style', 'taste', 'way of life' and 'character'). Now my nails are almost always painted, and always in some very bright colour. 
  3. Colour. Most of my wardrobe in New Zealand is muted colours and, lets be honest, black. Now it is hot pink, green, bright blue, plaid, everything
  4. Fabric. I care about fabric. I go to my tailors house for dinner and know his whole family on a first-name basis. At the fabric shops, I fuss, I only buy pure cotton, pure silk - I'm stopping on the way to Vizag in Odissa because of how famous the region is for silk and embroidery. 
  5. I have glasses now. So I can see far away villages and stuff. 
  6. I say sentences like: "It's too beautiful!" (Indians use the word 'too' as meaning 'very' constantly) 
  7. If  I see a cute child, I think it's normal to stop and have an extended conversation with them. In fact, I am late everywhere (this isn't new) because I have a policing of stopping to talk to every child who tries to talk to me. This policy does not apply to adult men. 
  8. I think trashy pop music like this is seriously good. I'm not being ironic or anything cool, I actually just love it and sing along every time it comes on. I can listen to it twice in a row even. 
  9. I started wearing rings because 1. When I didn't, Bengali women would look at my naked hands and ask why I have such a vendetta against rings, and 2. Because the rings sold in my area are so beautiful. 
  10. Even if I am wearing: a brightly coloured kurta and choose slacks (tight Indian pants), earrings, a necklace and a ring, one of the local teenage girls will look at me askew and ask "Leila, don't you like eye-liner?" and in the same day another one will tell me, with their concerned face on: "Leila, if you put eye-liner, you would look too beautiful, really." I've internalized this rigorous idea of getting dressed, and now I feel like I won't feel ready until I look something like this: 

At least for my wedding, eh? I said to a woman today "I wish I was Indian. I want a big Indian wedding" (the picture above is traditional Bengali wedding jewellery). 
She said, like it was the obvious solution, "well, marry an Indian man!" and I told her that I already have an idea of who I'd like to marry, and he's unfortunately Canadian. She made sympathetic tut-tut noises. 

To summarise, some might say India has made me more superficial and silly (both directions my character was doubtless already headed in), and I would agree. But it's also made me love being a woman, in this particular female body. This feels like a bizarre thing to say about such a famously bad place to be a woman, but here in West Bengal, it's made me feel like some kind of playful, treasured forest nymph. Some schools of feminist thought would argue I'm just taking joy in decorating my cage, a metaphor well-fitted to my new love of jewelry, but for me (I cannot speak for others) it has been more like a celebration of embodiment. In India, my own embodiment has felt okay to me, for the first time. I got sick, a lot, at the start and I've felt hot beyond anything I'd experienced before. My appearance is always being observed, commented on and I'm very conscious of how much skin I show. Climbing Maenam was physically my limit and the beds I've slept on are little more than a board with a sheet on it. My body is always there. And now, at the age of 28, I love it. Covering it in jewels seems like the entirely appropriate response. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Old post: Nepali Stroll

So this is about three months old (or more!), but anyway in Kathmandu valley I walked from the village of Nagarkot to the village of Dhulikhel. Both are famous for their views of the Himalayas and generally being pretty Mountain places: Nagarkot is on the typical 'lonely planet' trail and consists mostly of hotels, and Dhulikhel is more of an ordinary village - I really liked both. The walk between the two took me about six hours, but I wasn't exactly hurrying, and I was approached by several well-meaning Nepalis telling me that they would take a taxi, given the choice.

Nagarkot locals

Baby with money

Pierre asked me if he could please stay here forever, and I said no

In the restaurant of the "Hotel at the End of the Universe" (recommended). 

Where I retired to after several hours of Nepali folk singing around a fire

The walk

Misty prayer flags

At one comical moment on the walk, I felt myself to be lost in a maze of paths going through a very pretty woods when I came across the place pictured above. At the far end is that small house and I yelled out "Hello! Namaste!" and an old man who looked like a dream-vision of a hermit Indian guru (long beard, coloured rags as clothes) yelled NAMASTE back and kept on keeping on. I walked towards him, he didn't walk towards me and I had to climb all the way up to his house to ask him for directions to Dhulikhel. His directions were simple, he waved his arm vaguely in the direction of one of the paths and said "go!" beaming at me. So I did.

In Nagarkot a thick mist had obscured the supposedly splendid view of the mountains, but I didn't mind since it made the whole place feel spooky - and anyway, I sat up half the night with six Nepali mountain men, between about 17 and 85 in age, teaching me beautiful Nepali folk songs, playing guitar and feeding me freshly roasted potato slices off the fire. All in all, one of the truly most magical nights I could care to name.

NB: I don't think playing guitar at night or around a fire inherently makes for a magical night; the guitar needs to be played well and the company has to be interesting. Take note, American hippies.

In any case, I got to hang out with those badboys the Himalayas from the comfort of my bedroom in Dhulikhel, where the clouds cleared and I woke to find myself surrounded by this:

The mountains surrounding my room in Dhulikhel