Sunday, April 26, 2009

Thanjavur, Tamil Nadu; Sri Lanka; Kathmandu and... goodbye!

Since our last entry, David and I have moved quite a long way...

We spent a couple of days in Thanjavur, where we visited the Birhadeeswara Temple, one of the largest temples we've seen in our travels. We spent a lovely late afternoon/evening there, and the light was perfect for taking some pictures of this great architectural structure...

(Find Bici in the picture!)

We spent the next morning at the Thanjavur Museum, which holds a large collection of both stone and bronze sculptures. Below are some of our favorites. When possible, I would highly recommend clicking on the image to take a closer look for yourself:

(This was our most favorite piece in the bronze collection! It's a really soft, well proportioned, and overall beautiful Siva. The picture doesn't do justice to the sculpture, but at least it's documentative. If you are ever in Thanjavur, keep your eyes out for him!)

After two days in Thanjavur we returned to Chennai, took our last auto-rickshaw drive

...and took off for Srilanka, where we met with Margot, Tom, Ben and Ele. The following are a series of pictures from our one week stay in this BEAUTIFUL country. David and I really look forward to going back for more exploration.
(We were staying in a resort close to Tagalle, in the South of Srilanka. On our second day there we took off for an elephant safari. On our way there we saw these Giant Bats hanging out on a tree as the sun was rising. They were huge!)

(A family of elephants who spent quite a bit of time looking at us and posing for pictures. The tiny one was always somewhat hidden by the adult elephants :-)

(Our jeep and the landscape of the natural park we visited for the safari. Ele is standing in the background...)

(We spent 4 days in a beautiful resort by the beach. Above is a classic sun-vacation shot of David and Ele.)

(View from the resort's restaurant. Quite idyllic. It was really special to meet in this beautiful place...)

(Ele between her two guardians, David and Ben, who are shading her from the midday sun.)

We spent 4 wonderful days with our families, celebrated Passover, hung out on the beach, and just generally had a good time. When Margot, Tom, Ele and Ben left, David and I spent two more days in Srilanka. We visited the beautiful fortress/castle/Buddhist site of Sigiriya, famous for its frescoes portraying women from all around the world...

We were also able to quickly visit the ancient capital of Srilanka, Anandapuram, which used to be a very important center for Buddhism. Below are some images to give you a feeling of the location...

The two photos below will give you a sense of how similar the art in Anandapuram is to the work in Amaravati. We were told that during the time these reliefs were made, Sri Lankan artists were traveling to Andra Pradesh to learn from artists in Amaravati...

Anandapuram is also known for a beautiful moonstone (the stone at the footstep of a stair case.) I love how the animals on this one have worn out with time, giving them a real three dimensional feeling, as though they were shaded.

At Anandapuram we were caught in our first real monsoon! Below, omnious clouds before the drenching rain...

After Sri Lanka we quickly made our way up to Kathmandu, taking 4 planes in 4 days. Needless to say, once we got here we were a little exhausted. For more than a week now we have been planning our (now imminent) trek around the Manaslu Circuit. We are actually leaving in just a few minutes, after a full week of planning, shopping for food and equipmnet, getting permits, and other general organization. During the week, both David and I managed to get sick, but are now basically healed. Our trek will last 24-25 days, and won't be documented online, but I will be happy to share images and stories once we get back and, with many of you, hopefully in person. Thank you so much for participating in our travels by reading and writing- it has been a wonderful journey and this blog a special way to share our adventures.

Wishing you all much happiness,


Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trichy, Tamil Nadu.

We left yesterday from Pondicherry with a train that took us to Trichy, also know by its easier name: Tiruchirapalli. At the station, we discovered that both our cell phones were missing. I had placed them in a small pocket that we found open, so it's unclear whether they just fell or were... borrowed permanently. I felt a little demoralized as during this trip I have lost several objects: my I-pod on a plane, my wallet on the way to Munnar (it fell out of my bag and someone witnessed a girl quickly picking it up), a special pair of earrings in Varkala, and now the cell phones... Even though we have few belongings on us, it seems like I can't keep track of them... My mother told me she read somewhere that it's pretty usual to loose things while traveling, anyone have any stories to share?
Luckily, during our train wait I was distracted by our sitting area neighbours. These two men came in at different times and easily made them selves comfortable. Really something.

Now we are in Trichy. We came here to get a look at three main sites: the Rock Fort Temple, Sri Ranganathaswamy Temple (dedicated to Vishnu), and Sri Jambukeshwara Temple (for Shiva.) We saw all three today. Below is one of the first images to greet us on the way up to the Rock Fort Temple, which sits on top of a 83m high stone hill that stands lonesomely in the middle of the plain arond Trichy.

As we walked the 437 steps up the rocky hill, we met yet another group of smiling children. They waved to us while screaming "Hi!" almost to the top of their lungs :-)

The two temples at the Rock Fort were crowded with people doing morning poojas, and the space was full of the sounds of drums and bells and the smell of incense. We discovered the best piece on the hill right after saying hello to the children, see below.

(This dynamic looking Shiva is very reminiscent of the work we saw at Mahabalipuram - you should be able to make our some Pallava traits in the carving.)

(Here is the view from the top of the hill. In the forefront, the Shiva temple halfway up the rock. Immediately to the left, in the background, a huge church. Oh, the lovely diversity of India.)

(This was the last sculpture we saw on our way out of the Rock Fort: a nicely oiled and flowery Ganesh. It's really great how sensous the sculpture gets with all the dowsing in oil, milk, tikka powder, etc.)

(After darshan - seeing God - David and I were fed prasad in the form of a small glass of sweet milk. We discovered its sources live in one of the side temples along the stairs! Margot, we think of you every time we see nandis and nandinis...)
After taking an extra long break from the heat, David and I visited the main Vishnu temple in Trichy, a really large complex encircled by four walls. Below are some images from there:

(She was at the base of a column and reminds us of our friend Keely!)

(Look closely at this image to find the incospicuous genitalia...)

(The lower parts of these colums have turned black from the many years of dowsing the sculptures carved on them with oil and milk.)
Below is a closer look at a couple of sculptures that have gained a particular look through all their divination...
(Vishnu sitting on Shesha, the king of snakes.)

(Vishnu crowned with flowers.)

(Along one of the walls surrounding the temple are large emblems of Vaishnavite worship- a bit like a logo...)

(Colorful back doors to the inner temple.)
Next we visited Sri Jambukeshwara Temple, a much quieter and more intimate space. Again, below is a little overview...
(Outside of the temple: typical Dravidian architecture, very wide spread in Tamil Nadu.)

(Finally documentation of the elephant blessing one of us! I waited for David to get into position to get a good shot, dropped a 2 rupee coin in Shakti's trunk, and enjoyed the gentle weight of her trunk on my back :-)

(The men sitting around were playing some sort of game- many people just hang out on the temple grounds.)
This temple had some really beautiful portryals of plants as well as some interesting small panels that we weren't able to understand in terms of iconography. The pictures I took of the flowers and plants really aren't great, but here are two panels that caught our attention:

(Is he a shy rishi?)
Tomorrow we're already off to Thanjavur, where we will go look at some more art, this time mainly Chola work. As we come to the end of our travels around Southern India, we both think we will be returning to Tamil Nadu sometime in the near future, with a careful eye to temperatures and seasons... Meantime, we will enjoy the next couple of days of exploration before making our way to Srilanka and meeting with our families (we are very very excited about that.)
A presto,

More Auroville...

So... our stay in Auroville ended up being longer than we expected. From the Central Guest House, we moved to Verite', a community in the North West part of this green town. Our new room was called "Skyroom," it was on the upper floor of a barn-like structure, which made it a little hot, but so beautiful and spacious that it was worth the extra warmth:

During our extended stay, David and I paid daily visits to the Matrimandir to meditate/ sit in silence for about an hour. This is a HUGE spherical building covered in discs made of goldleaf fused in glass, so that the whole thing looks like a shimmering ball of gold (in fact, only a total of 6kg of gold were used fot the whole building.) Inside it's WILD. It was designed by Roger Anger in the 60's and has a total futuristic feel, a little like being in a spaceship, with two spiraling platforms that lead to a 2nd floor chamber. This chamber is totally dark except for a gigantic clear optical glass ball that refracts light in the room as well as through itself in a channel of light that moves down and out of the building. Inside, the Matrimandir is mostly made of white marble, and when you sit in the meditation chamber it feels really soothing... You can read more about this non-religious gathering space here. It's thought of as the "soul of Auroville," and the whole town is planned around it.

(You are not allowed to take pictures of the Matrimandir up close. Here, behind the tree on the forefront, you can see the Matrimandir on the right and a glimpse of a beautiful and huge banyan tree on the left. The banyan tree was discovered by the original Auroville settlers and chosen as the center for Auroville.)

(A better shot of the Matrimandir, with less objects in the way. It's slightly squashed in shape, like the Earth. It reminds me of the yolk of an egg/ an ovary/ the center of a flower -it's surrounded in what are called "petals" - as well as all sorts of other images of fertility. When you are inside, it's quite womb like too...)

(Speaking of flowers... The Mother was really interested in the connection between flowers and spirituality. Auroville takes its flowers - as well as its trees - very seriously, and the grounds are covered in beautiful and delicious smelling blossoms. Above are two lotuses from the lotus pond at the Quiet Healing Center, a resort for massages and other treatments right by the beach...)

While we were in Auroville, we went by the Tibetan Pavillion, which is a new building that was inaugurated by H.H. Dalai Lama just this past February. It's quite new, and the picture below makes it look more like a digital rendering than the real thing!

Within the urban plan for Auroville, there is a whole area designed for buildings representing cultures from all over the world... I think this will be a very interesting aspect of Auroville to watch evolve, with all sorts of politics and differences in interpretations involved (even with the assumption that everyone means to represent each culture at its best.) The Tibetan Pavillion is an interesting example, considering all the political controversy around China/Tibet/H.H. Dalai Lama, and so forth.

It was great spending some more time in Auroville. On Friday afternoon we went to visit Sadhana Forest, a special place where a family is replanting 300 acres of dry and depleted land with trees (together with the help of about 500 rotating volunteers each year.) I did not take any pictures, but you can learn more about this project on this man's blog as well as in this article. Definitely a place to check out if you go to Auroville!

Our last night was made particularly eventful thanks to a Ramayana festival taking place at a cultural center nearby (Adishakti.) We got a chance to see an evening performance of Kathakali, a dance form from Kerala. It was great! I have seen a solo Kathakali dancer perform before, but this was much more complete, and so theatrical! What really struck me was how much of a popular kind of theater Kathakali is, reminiscent of the Italian Commedia dell'Arte. I imagined a very serious evening of classical Indian dance, but it felt much more participatory and humorous than, say, a Bharatanatyam performance piece. Kathakali is filled with stock characters and well known stories, so that the audience can always anticipate what is coming. Each character is introduced by a makeshift curtain (held by two stage hands who, in this case, seemed a little bored with their job!) and while loud drums beat frenetic rhythms, the audience waits in anticipation for the character to be revealed in all his/her glory and color (costumes are so dramatic!)

(Who could it be?!)

(Ta da! It's HANUMAN! The performance we got to see centered on Hanuman and his quest to cross over to Srilanka to find Sita- damsel in distress previously kidnapped by evil Ravana- and reassure her that Rama was on his way to save her.)

One of the more interesting scenes in the performance involved Hanuman's encounter with an ugly and evil demoness who obstructs his entrance into the city of Lanka. After several attempts to get passed her, Hanuman slaps the demoness and...lo and behold, she transforms herself into a beautiful deity and we discover that she was under an evil spell. By slapping her, Hanuman has restored her beauty and divine state. The moral: if your woman has ugly breasts and demon like behavior, slap her into beauty.
(The encounter with the horrific demoness. We are told Hanuman openly makes fun of her ugly breasts...)
(Post-slap beauty. I believe here she's thanking Hanuman for hitting her...)
And here is Ravana, in all his evil-regal splendor, standing next to an apathetic and uninterested Sita-she does not do much for the whole play.

(After attempting to seduce Sita with precious jewels and textiles, Ravana looses his patience and decides to kill her. He is stopped at the last minute by his wife, who reminds him that one must never kill a woman. This is an interesting triangle, in which the wife begs her husband not to kill the woman with whom he's trying to have an affair...)

We left Auroville a couple of days ago, spent two nights in Pondicherry, and visited the nearby town of Chidambaram, where there is a large and renouned Shiva temple. Our next destination: Trichy. I will create a new entry for that shortly.