Sunday, February 25, 2007

Local colour

Freestyle Flashback
Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh

I was looking through my past year's photos, for pictures to submit to the 50 Million Missing group, and found this. AmmaGaru ("Garu" is a Telugu honorific; they call the Dalai Lama "Dalai LamaGaru") was my across-the-street neighbor during last year's Kalachakra ceremony in Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh. She is one of the things (there are so many) that I loved about being a visitor in small-town South India. (Not sure I would want to grow up, raise a family, or have to make a living there, but I loved visiting.)

The eldest woman of the house is always responsible for its spiritual upkeep. She must rise early, during "Brahma Muhurrtam" (hour of the gods) - that is, around four or five. First, the woman must bathe - regardless of how cold it is. Only after bathing, she can do all the household pujas, especially mangal aratik or waving the oil lamp before the gods and in front of the front door, to remove the darkness, and cleanse and protect the house and its occupants.

Then she draws a kollam (also called rangoli, or by many local names) - a geometric design - with chalk powder, directly on the front door step. It's a sort of invocation and invitation to the gods. Kollams are a real art form in and of themselves; every region has its own style, and only women do them.

All these tasks must be completed before sunrise, which signals the end of Brahma Muhurrtam.

I never managed to catch her in the process - she got up in the morning far earlier than I . Amma lived alone in a very tidy, clean-swept semi-hut. Her kollams were, well, unique. They seemed to have no boundaries. Others were happy doing a smallish design right in front of the door, but often Amma would just "go off" and start freestyling all over the sidewalk.

AmmaGaru seemed to be alone in the world. I sometimes caught her talking to herself.

She was always concerned that I was in the house alone and admonished me to lock the gate behind me (all in Telugu, of course, but I understood through her mimetic gestures).

Amma had two beautiful Mangalagiri saris that she wore on alternate days - one maroon, the other forest-green. How did she know they are my two very favourite colours?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Galli Galli Sim Sim

Can you tell me how to get....
New Delhi

This morning I was flipping channels during breakfast (milk tea and cornflakes, served with hot milk that turns them to mush - which, for some reason, is the Indian way) and came across the Indian Sesame Street.

It's called Galli Galli Sim Sim - a galli is a small street, like an alley. Everything was virtually the same, but all in Hindi, and of course with Indian kids. I was impressed that Bert and Ernie - not sure what the Hindi names were- retained their trademark vocal characters (nasal, nerdy) even in Hindi language.

Too bad they didn't translate the wonderful theme song into Hindi too, but I found the show quite useful for picking up language bits. They have the same "commercials" for letters of the alphabet and numbers that I found so delightful as a kid.

They also had segments introducing other languages of India to the mainstream Hindi-speaking kids, such as a Kerala girl teaching her friend to count in Malayalam ("onnu, rindu, munna..."). This stuff really works. I can still recite the Spanish counting rhymes we learned so many decades ago on Sesame Street.

"uno-dos-tres-quatro-cinquo-sis-siete-ocho-NUEVE, DIAS!"

I read the news today, oh boy
The biggest news for me today was a story (buried in the separate City section)
of Indian Express.

A judge here in Delhi has decided in favour of a young (17 years old) girl who eloped, saying since her father had threatened her life if she married her intended, of her own choice, the girl had a right to elope. He could not force her to return home, nor force her to marry against her will. I've looked for the net news link, but can't find it.

This is remarkable because typically young women are considered the property of their fathers. Parents usually receive police assistance in forcing such women who elope or marry against the parents' wishes to return home, where they will often face abuse, reprisals, or at least, a marriage against their will. The girl is assumed to be a victim, the boy assumed to be her abductor, and he is usually charged with kidnapping.

The girl was from a Muslim family, and her intended was Hindu. She has changed her name to from a Muslim one, Afsana, to the Hindu "Anjali." This court upheld the young woman's right to determine her own fate, saying "the right to life and liberty apply as well to minors when they have been threatened."

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dealing With Delhi

A Capitol Idea
New Delhi

I finally pulled myself away from Bodh Gaya. I checked out of the International Meditation Centre and my clean, quiet, cheap room where everything worked (24 hour hot water - 125Rs donation per day). Sadly, I turned in my trusty blue Avon bicycle, delivered a few books for resell to Kundan Bazar, and took a night taxi to the Gaya train station (the train for Delhi was at 11.30pm, and autorickshaws aren't safe on that route at night). It was really nice staying in a community in which so much of the activity is oriented around meditation, monasticism and spirituality. Not to mention, a sort of living zoo. Each morning as I pedaled down the dirt road toward the main road, I was confronted by snuffling black hogs, scratching chickens, moseying cows, waddling ducks, strutting long-legged water birds in the mosquito swamp next door, and tail-wagging street dogs.

Sigh, back into the noise, sophistication and rush of big city life.

I'm en route to McLeod Ganj and the Dalai Lama's annual teachings. The tiny hill station of McLeod will be positively swamped because of this. I still haven't managed to book a room via phone. Hopefully things will improve when I "land" from the overnight stomach-churning bus. Everyone I have gotten to know over the past 2 months in Bodh Gaya and Sarnath will also be there. By now I feel like they are some kind of family, which I suppose is true. Anna, the wonderful Croatian journalist who sat next to me the first time I shook the Dalai Lama's hand. Lilian and Simon, two dedicated volunteers who are travelling and teaching about global warming in Indian schools. Schahel (spelling?), the Israeli Buddhist with whom I shared the taxi from the Varanasi airport, the very first day. And Ina, the Russian Buddhist who was my next-door-neighbor in Kathmandu in 2005!

It's still quite decent in mornings and evenings here, weather-wise, but the mid-day is already getting too hot for me. The semi-annual (twice yearly) planetary conjunction of Mercury Retrograde is underway, with all its attendant confusion, miscommunications, goof-ups and misconnections. Laugh if you will, but I just about went under during the last two. It will all be over on 7 March, but that's two more weeks of confusion away.

I don't see why people grouse so much about Delhi, but then, I have never had to live, commute and work here. As a stopover it is really quite civilized.

No need to mess with the many touts and hawkers at the railway station. I just head directly for the Pre-Paid Autorickshaw stand, where a trusty uncle behind the desk asks my destination and determines the "karrekta" fare. I pay him, and he writes my destination and name on a slip. At the end of the drive, I hand the slip to the driver. No muss, no fuss, and no argument over price. If I stay in Tibet Colony (Majnu ka tilla), the ride is about 60Rs from New Delhi and less from Old Delhi station. There, I can get a swell, clean room for about 300Rs (seven dollars) a night or less, depending on availability. However, it is far from any offices or errand-running places. So, I take a cycle rickshaw to the spanking new Delhi Metro - Vidhan Sabha station. That costs 10rs (about twenty cents).

The Metro is a great example of what modern India can do when it puts its considerable brains to work. It's spotless, safe, cool and well lit, and the trains run on time so as to put Switzerland to shame. A ride from Vidhan Sabha to Rajiv Chowk (a central stop) is 11Rs. Damn, the New York subway never looked so good! Amazing. You are not allowed to eat or drink on this metro - that helps, a lot. I pity the NYC cop who would try to part a Manhattanite from his morning bagel.

Rajiv Chowk is essentially the centre of Connaught Place (they still haven't successfully given this a patriotic renaming). I find "CP," essentially three concentric circles connected by covered arcade walkways, to be very easily traversed and the covered arcades make a welcome respite from sun or rain. And compared to other places, it's so clean!

I can't afford to buy a darn thing, but if I could, I would head directly to the State Emporia complex on Connaught Place. Here, all the best of Indian fabrics, clothing, handicrafts and such are laid out in orderly, browsable fashion. No digging through piles of fabric or dusty stacks of prints in a crowded, badly-lit shop. Glorious silk sarees of Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, each with their distinctive weave patterns, shimmer in the shop windows.

And, my favourite orange ice-cicles are on sale on every corner. Five rupees each.

Travelers complain about central Delhi, I think, because they arrive here first and have yet to see the rest of India. So they think Delhi is nasty. They have no idea how bad it's going to get elsewhere!

Tag! You're It

New toys
New Delhi

Thanks to the new Blogger upgrade, we now have tags for each and every entry (starting now, and for the oldies as soon as I add them retroactively).

For those of you who aren't quite as geeky as I:
Tags are categories that appear at the bottom of each post, representing topics in that post. They help you find other related posts. For instance, if you want to see all the posts that mention "Tibet" you can click on that tag.

As I have been blogging for more than a year with no tags, I have a lot of "updations" to do retroactively. (Retro-tagging?)

Quiz Show

Other new gadgets you can find down on the sidebar include the Asian Skies weather unit, a Kathmandu time-clock, and Tibet news headlines from

And don't forget to take the fun new quizzes:
"Which Tarot Card Are You?,"

"Which Edward Gorey Book Are You?"

and best of all:
"How Will You Die?"

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Rain Song

Mucking about
Patna, Bihar

It's raining here, as well as in most of the Northern region - Delhi, Varanasi and so on. Doesn't sound so strange, unless you realize that in this part of the world, at this time of year, it's virtually unheard of. It means puddles of muck to tiptoe around (there are no sidewalks to speak of), mouldy laundry and lots of grown men with mufflers tied round their heads under their chins, which makes them look sort of like a cross-dressing Babushka, or as if they've got them mumps.

Normally, Indian weather comes in extreme waves. The rainy season here is generally June-September. After November, there's not a drop (and I mean, not one) till the following monsoon. Also, crummy photography - they light just isn't there and the mist is bad for the digital camera.

So why have skies been grey and cloudy for the past week? It's a mystery. Meanwhile, Himachal in the mountains has received no snow, worrying the tourist industry, and in the UK they are freaked out by unprecedented snowfall. It's so (relatively) cold in Cambodia that people who've never owned a sweater are out shopping for them.

Here's a thought from about the spirit of the rain.

The Supreme Water Spirit

The supreme water spirit Ocean covers the earth with clouds; the rain in each place is different, but the spirit has no thought of distinction.

Likewise, Buddha, sovereign of truth, extends clouds of great compassion in all directions, raining differently for each practitioner, yet without discriminating among them.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

"50 Million Missing"

...and counting
Anywhere, India

Infanticide, feticide - all names for gender- based murder, or a form of genocide. India's "gender ratio" is falling, particularly in more prosperous areas where parents can afford a gender determination test of the fetus. Since girl babies are unpopular (primarily because of the South Asian tradition of dowry, or the huge costs incurred in "marrying off" a daughter), countless families choose to abort female fetuses. Those who can't afford the prenatal test often murder or abandon girl children after birth.

Laws have been passed against both dowry and feticide (to prosecute the doctors and parents), consciousness-raising campaigns have been organized - all have been of very little use facing these deeply entrenched customs. This problem is not restricted to a particular religious or ethnic group, but has cut across socioeconomic and caste lines.

Just a couple months ago, a village well in Punjab, one of India's more propsperous states, was found stuffed with remains of hundreds of fetuses. Every single one of them was found to be female.

"50 Million Missing" is the name of a photo group started by Rita Banerji. Rita hopes to eventually represent each and every one of the missing girls with a photo, to put a human face on the numbers.

Rita saw my photos on Flickr and asked me to join. As I uploaded the photos, I realized what a massive undertaking this was - five photos, ten photos, drops in the bucket. Fifty million! As the faces appear on screen, I type a tiny note about each woman or girl - where I saw them, what they were doing. The enormity of the situation dawned on me.

I'll let Rita explain the rest (below).

Meanwhile, if you have photos of Indian women and girls, please join 50 Million Missing and upload them. At this time, there are only about 500 photos - there is a long way to go, in more than one sense.

From the 50 Million Missing site:
Through rampant feticide, infanticide, and the murder of young women by their husbands and inlaws for dowry, India has managed to invert its population ratio from 10:9, women to men, as is normal for any population, to 9:10. Further more India has also warped the gender ratio for 1/5 of the entire human population.

It is the HOPE of this website to have as many possible of the 50 million missing represented by a photograph. These can be of Indian women or girls, of any age, and community represented as portraits or shown as engaged in various activities -- which is life. It would help very much if there is a small personal commentary with the photo about the girl or woman so we can reverse the process of dehumanizing Indian women.

This is India's silent genocide -- and it is time for it to stop. I am also hoping that at some point those of us who are able to, will collectively either put out a book or start a touring exhibition -- and so bring this matter to head.

The Wind in the Bodhi Tree

Everywhere a sign
Bodh Gaya, Bihar

All the signs seem to be pointing to my imminent departure from the Land of Enlightenment
(Bodh Gaya), at least for the moment. Two nights ago, I came to retrieve my bicycle and someone had inexplicably wrenched the chain off track, and twisted the handlebars. (It was parked in the closed lot of the Temple Management Committee offices.) It didn't get that way by itself.

It was 6.20 at night, just after sunset.
Minutes after getting the bike fixed with the help of the Committee watchmen (I gave them a tip), I was biking between brightly-lit Kalachakra Corner and Mohammed's restaurant. Just riding my b
ike, ho de do... stopped to get my bearings on a darker stretch of the road. "What the hell?" I yelled as out of nowhere, a kid ran up, grabbed my breasts from behind, then jumped onto a motorcycle (driven by another waiting guy) and sped off. I pedaled furiously after them, but they disappeared into main road traffic.

The police had to be convinced to file a report ("you were not
harmed, Madame, and your valueables were not stolen"). In my best Indian English, I insisted calmly but firmly- "Inspector, 'Eve-teasing' is a crime under Indian law. It is my duty to report such a crime. If you do not wish to help me, I must go to my Embassy." They reluctantly got out pen and paper.

The first five times I stated my intention to file a report, the SubInspector exclaimed "What?!" as though he didn't understand. Later it transpired that he actually spoke very good English. It was difficult to tell whether they were afraid to have such an incident go on record on their watch, just didn't want to lift a finger to do any work, or perhaps both.

I went directly to the Bodhi Tree and sat in total bliss. A group of Thai pilgrims has transformed the temple into a shining fairyland, strung with huge bunches of magenta orchids, golden banners, peacock feathers, chysanthemums, and real rock crystals strung inside the Vajrasana (where the Buddha actually sat). Some Hungarian Buddhists were having discussion with their teacher in their language, the sounds carrying images of gothic Transylvanian mountains to my ears. A Sri Lankan group in pristine white chanted soothing Pali verses. The wind blew leaves from the sacred tree, and I managed to scurry after two and pick them up from the marble floor.

I felt safe, loved, and not at all angry or even frustrated. It's true, I wasn't hurt physically, and maybe it served as a good warning - that the deserted areas even in and around the peopled ones are not safe.

Rude Awakening
The very next morning brought a knock on my door at 7.30AM. The monk-in-charge (Bhante Rashtrapala, a Bangladeshi) of the meditation centre had sent an orderly to fetch me. Though there is not a single other soul in the entire guest house, Bhante insisted I had to vacate ASAP. "There is a big group coming," he insisted. Okay, what day are they coming? "Different days, different times." And you can't tell me when the days and times are? Then he finally said - "You have been here 40 days, you cannot stay so long here - this is a tourist place" (it is? I thought it was a meditation centre and monastery). At that point two very reverent young Indian (or Bangladeshi) people came in and bowed solemnly to Bhante, heads touching the floor. "I have to talk to them now," he said, and dismissed me with an impatient wave of the hand. There was no arguing with him - I must be out by the 12th.

Well, that's final. Guess he has to make way for more appropriately subservient guests.
I returned to the police station to retrieve my copy of the FIR report. But the power was off and they couldn't make a photocopy.

Ni hao do you do?

The sitemeter is showing an increasing number of viewers from Mainland China - surprising, since I discuss His Holiness the Dalai Lama so much. Either the censorship is slipping, or these viewers know a way around the Great Firewall. Or, perhaps they are government spies, keeping an eye on radical upstarts like myself.

During the recent Monlam, I met an entire group of Karmapa devotees from Mainland China. This is quite remarkable, considering that following the Karmapa's escape from Chinese-held Tibet into India, China's official position is that the Karmapa is being misled and brainwashed by nefarious parties, and that in fact one should follow their "Karmapa" - a
n imposter with a similar name (they even gave him eyeglasses), currently stationed in West Bengal. Of course, these devotees could also be spies, or there could be spies among them. But I don't think so - I interviewed the group leader, who is a passionate vegetarian, and his friend who was sufficiently motivated to open a vegetarian restaurant in Beijing. Tibetan Buddhism is gaining popularity in China, along with Chinese government attempts to supplant authentic lamas and teachers with those of their own invention. They do the same with the Catholic church (they have their own, "official" Catholic church). I commend the Chinese Buddhists who are daring to think and act for themselves.

Just a little background on the continuing situation in Chinese-held Tibet; this, from an independent source published on

Beijing is continuing to crack down on expressions of Tibetan cultural identity and loyalty to the Dalai Lama. One source described how their attempts to promote Tibetan language in schools was shut down because officials saw it as a veiled attempt to promote Tibetan nationalism. In June 2006, the Chinese-controlled government in Tibet started yet another “anti-Dalai L
ama” campaign, requiring handwritten and verbal denunciations of His Holiness by Tibetans with government jobs. These same employees are forbidden to circumambulate the Linkhor or they will lose their salary; people who disobey have been confronted with surveillance photographs of them on the Linkhor. I heard one unconfirmed report that officials plan to turn the Barkhor area of Lhasa into a “living museum” by evicting over 2,000 families, thereby emptying the last remaining part of Lhasa that is still largely Tibetan. I address instances of economic discrimination against Tibetans in Section C below. All these examples point to a deliberate policy to simultaneously hold down the Tibetans while promoting the demographic primacy of ethnic Chinese.

And, more background, and an update on the responses from the Tibetan diaspora in this excellent Rolling Stone feature. I hope this author wrote under an assumed name - otherwise, he most definitely will never get another Chinese visa.

The Man's Still Banned

His Holiness the Dalai Lama is still banned in, among other places, Kenya and Cambodia. It's just pathetic what people will do for Chinese money. As my friend Ardith says, "I think his goodness frightens some people. "

Monday, February 05, 2007

Stalking the Wild Lama

Week In Review
Bodh Gaya, Bihar

This week, your intrepid reporter witnessed relics of the Buddha and his two primary disciples, Sariputra and Mogallana, displayed in diamond-encrusted cases, all the way from Sri Lanka. The relics arrived on a grand antique wagon drawn by four Belgian draft horses. The relics themselves, seen in closeup, looked like tiny chips of bone or tooth cushioned on cotton balls, inside the gleaming cases, which were inside a glass display box, which were inside the Mahabodhi Society Mahavihara.

The next day we saw HH the Dalai Lama enshrine those relics in the Mahabodhi Society Vihara in a solemn ceremony, made raucous with rude Indian male photographers . I thought they were going to knock over the jeweled boxes and send the relics flying into the crowd of monks. It does take a true Bodhisattva to live one's life in the near-constant presence of those snap-happy, pushing, shoving jerks without losing patience. The DL seemed quite amused at all the fuss, sometimes looking like he was suppressing laughter.

The following day the Dalai Lama opened a three-day conference, Buddhism in the 21st Century. After hearing the Bihar governor talk in Hindi for 15 minutes and end by shouting "Buddham Saranam Gacchami! Dharmam saranam Gacchami! Sangam saranam Gacchami!!"-- the DL told us, in perfect English that he insists on describing as "my broken English," that to be good Buddhists we can't "just shout mantras." We must be good people, be nice to one another and refrain from "cheating, stealing and lying."

He he he - I thought that was especially aimed at the Bihar government members who shared the platform. Then he blew everyone's mind by signing a few autographs (!) and shaking hands before being herded out the door under his usual yellow umbrella.

My right hand is still totally sore and goes numb a lot, from mouse injury...sorry I can't upload more. I did video some of the DL's speeches but just holding down the shutter-button made my hand go numb.

Faraway places

Iceland, Oman and Malta are three of the more exotic newcomers on the Sitemeter Viewers list this week.

Someone from Iceland actually read for half an hour. I would love to hear the impressions of a Scandinavian on their first trip to India!