Saturday, January 17, 2009

Some catching up...

Dear all,

David and I have been gone from easy and fast internet for the past week, which is why we have not been able to update the blog as frequently as we did initially. In this break I have also realized that posting images is a great luxury, only truly possible with a high internet connection. As a result, after this post you might see a pretty steep decline in the photos we'll be able to share.

What you see below are images of the laundry district in Mumbai, a very large area completely run by men who "beat the hell out of the clothes" (as David put it). These photos were taken in the middle of the day, when most of the beating action was over (apparently usually the sound is incredibly loud and somewhat synchronized). To make up for the relative quite, the clothes were all hanging, creating a colorful contrast against the polluted skyline of Mumbai.

All around the neighbour you see charts with plump, round, sari-like fabrics filled with clean/dirty clothes which is either being delivered back to the school/restaurant/hosptial from which it came, or being brought to the launderers. I'm not really sure which. In any case, the fabric in which the clothes itself is being carried caught my eye.

Before seeing the laundry district (from an over passage - I don't believe you can walk through it), David and I visited the ex- Victoria and Albert Museum, today the Dr. Bahu Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum. This is a really special building in Mumbai: it's originally from the 1870's and its vibrant and somewhat baroque colors and architecture have only been recently restored (the process was over just a year ago). This is a picture of the top floor, but you can see more on their website. The museum offers an especially interesting exhibit of miniature terracotta figurines showing all the "different people of Mumbai" over the centuries. It's basically an ode to Mumbai as one of the first intercultural and global center in the world. Not surprising seen all the trading that went on that had to go through this gigantic natural harbor...

Next to the museum is a botanical garden eventually also turned zoo. This is because the British, who originally established the museum, wanted to create a center for the people of Mumbai where the best flora and fauna could be exhibited next to the best "cultural items"...the zoo is quite awful, but the garden attracts many Mumbai families, which is very sweet to watch. Also, within the zooo/park is a beautiful Japanese garden. Here's a picture of a great piece of bamboo: it looks like the green streaks have been painted on it!

The pictures above all come from our last day around Mumbai last week. The next day we left for Arungabad, a really polluted city which connects trains and planes to the beautiful world heritage sites of Ajanta and Ellora. We went to Ajanta first, a loud 2.5 hour bus ride north east of Arungabad. The caves at Ajanta have been carved out of volcanic rock (basalt) in an incredible ravine. Although right now the place looks quite barren (see below), in the summer time it undergoes a complete transformation- everything turns green and lush, there are 7 waterfalls at different points between the caves, and the river below them roars with monsoon water. David and I are planning to come back sometime during the rainy season to experience the site that way.

What was REALLY special at Ajanta was hanging out with 81 year old Prof. Walter Spink, an American scholar who teaches at Michigan University and has been working at Ajanta for the past 40 years trying to unravel some of the puzzles posed by this incredible complex of 27 Buddhist temples carved in the rock. He was delightful! First of all, his insight was crucial in bringing to life the site. He maintains that the caves were all made within a span of about 20 years from each other. This is contrarily to popular opinion, which argues that they were built over several centuries. Spink's theory is that all the caves were began to be constructed under one major king's patronage and encouragement, King Harisena. When he was abruptly assasinated in 478 CE, the site was abandoned. You can see traces of this in actual sculptures which are left unfinished. Check out the second buddhas for example:

They just weren't finished! Anyway, there is a lot of scholarship on the topic of these caves and Prof. Spink has written volumes and volumes about it. Here he is in a "historical picture", at the computer on which he's writing the 6th volume of his Ajanta collection (here David was helping him make room in the memory of his PC):

Prof. Spink took the morning of our second day in Ajanta to show us around some of the most important caves of the site (#1,2 and 4). Here he is together with Davind in the main chamber of the same cave as the buddhas above. This is a great picture to give you a sense of the size of these temples (they were carved from the top down i.e. from the ceiling to the floor):

David and I fell a little bit in love with Prof. Spink. He even recited some Yeats to us over dinner. It was absolutely special to be there with him and to hear his perspective on the caves, as well as on the politics between him and the Indian bureaucracy concerning access to the caves, lighting, design of the structure to access the caves, and many many more things...he really loves this site deeply.

Here are some other images from the Ajanta caves to give you a sense of how sophisticated some of the art there is:

(The facade of cave 26, the last one accessible of the complex. Really massive. The carving is very good.)

(Inside cave 26. General smiling picture of Bici waving an arm for special effect. This is a beautiful carving of the Buddha reaching enlightenment, sorrounded by all sorts of distractions. Doesn't matter, he's moved beyond...)

(Wealthy guardian figure. I love his hair do and how sensual his body is!)

(Inside the cave guarded by the sexy wealth guardian...)

By the way, apart from the temples, at Ajanta David and I were two rock stars/zoo-like attractions. We had people taking pictures of us all over the place, as well as gaping at us sitting in the grass as though we were monkeys in a cage:

After two days, David and I left Ajanta and Walter Spink behind, as well with this interesting group of puppies who were being fed by their grandmother. Incestuos confusion apart, they were adorable!

We spent the next two days in Ellora, where we took far less pictures. This is my favorite: it gives you a sense of how deeply people carved in order to make Temple Kailasa, the main attraction of the site. I'm sure you can get more pictures of the temples themselves online or in books if you are interested.

Ellora was definitely impressive. Particularly the Jain temples, further away than the Buddhist and Hindu temples (unlike Ajanta, which is totally dedicated to Buddhism, Ellora's temples are separated into three sections, each devoted to a different religion.) She was definitely one of our favorite figures in one of the Jain caves, in cave 32. Still, David and I missed Prof. Spink very much: the trip here was not quite the treat Ajanta turned out to be!

Anyway, this is all the writing I can muster for one session. Oh! Today Brian joined us! In a pre-iconic quotation of Buddhist art (meaning: when Buddha still was not portrayed, but was merely symbolized by his footprints) here is a picture of our shoes: David, Brian and Bici. Your riddle: whose are whose? (Hairy legs are not a necessarily reliable clue, as I have been known to shun waxing for months...)

Tomorrow we will be joined by Sarah and Ben Lurrie, two other friends. Together we will be going site seeing for another couple of days, and eventually making our way to Goa, to lie in the sun like lizards.

I will write more the next chance I get.

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