Wednesday, September 16, 2009

just wow

Originally uploaded by bharatanatyam 2009
I can't add anything to this. Except maybe the name of the dancer - Varsha Uma of Chennai. She's a student of SriDevi Nrithalaya. By the way, in this photo she is about 13. I need another lifetime to be reborn so I can start dancing at 6.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Reconstructive criticism

Dancing in the semi-dark
Kathmandu and Patan

What's "authentic," what's not, who gets to decide that when it comes to "culture"? -Especially when one is a foreign interloper?

Perhaps it's far from an original question, but it continues to present itself. I continue to learn Newar Charya Nrtya, the Buddhist classical dance of Nepal, and to observe my own reactions to "authenticity," "tradition" and "updation."

Regardless of what the Chennai dance masters will tell you, nearly *all* the Indian "classical dances" were reconstructed from next-to-nothing. (Kerala's Kudiyattam is an exception, I believe, because it was continuously performed without a break in tradition.) That doesn't mean they are not classical, just that they are not as ancient, or entirely as ancient, as often fantasized.

I began to suspect this long ago when my Bharatanatyam teachers had trouble pinning down provenances and answering questions about origins. Given the Indian high esteem for ancient-ness (older the better), this was inconsistent. Being able to cite one's lineage and origin is, almost literally, everything.

(I know "literally" is a very overused word these days, excuse me....)

In trying to revise certain aspects (mostly, the costumes) of Newar Charya Nrtya, I have noticed the same principle applies for the dance that works when observing and learning from Buddhist art.

Sometimes newer is better...because it just looks better. (I know, "better" is a subjective statement. Bear with me.)

That is, the most ancient, "authentic" things sometimes are just too dilapidated to really be of much use. In looking at Buddhist monastery art, it is great to see the oldest paintings...but most of the time, they are barely visible.

Kathmandu and parts of India are full of newly constructed monasteries, some with vivid psychedelic artwork. I can actually get a better idea of forms, shapes and postures from observing and photographing these. It's for the art historians, I suppose, to narrate how the art has evolved. I would like to refer to the oldest artwork available - but it has to be available, and visible.

Are the new paintings "authentic"? They have been painted by modern persons who are students of an ancient, classical art form. "Classical" = there is a particular vocabulary, a canon, of images and styles that are "acceptable."

Until someone decides to throw in something new, that is. I now know this from experience.

Case in point: the costumes (and I know I am not the first - Shahrazad and my friend Margot are at least two that have done the same) that I have decided to revise. True, they are not what the National Academy is using, nor any of the (few) existing Charya dance troupes that I know of. "My" version of the costumes closely follows that of the thangkas, paubha and temple sculpture. So which is more authentic? I'm not Nepali.

When I approached my friend about putting together more "authentic costumes," she responded that there were "no authentic costumes."

Okay, perhaps there are no unchanged costumes handed down in style and form from 500 or 1000 years ago. What I want to achieve is a return, so to speak, to what SCA folks might call *period* materials.

That is, to eschew anything that could not have existed at the time of the dance's origin. (Within reason...I will use Lakme kajal the same way I use red Magic Marker for Bharatanatyam. If they had had red Magic Marker back then, they would have used it. Yes, this is inconsistent! You try using Alta and letting it dry while not getting red stains on your costume!)

This isn't for pedantic reasons...more aesthetic.

The angika abhinaya (body expression) of the basic movements had been obscured, partly by slack standards (where is your tribhangi??) and partly by the billowy costume.

Rather than wearing synthetic satins made in China or India with gold lame border, the original dancers wore veshti. For references, I have been photographing the temple roof struts and sculptures.

Is this nitpicking? Well, the temple sculptures and paintings all depict very specific postures with leg, arm, head and foot positions. If you can't see them, what's the point?

The school of wishful thinking

A return to the ancient, the original, the authentic...this was a big part of the Yuppie ethos, wasn't it? (As the brilliant humourist Cynthia Heimel said in the mid-80s, "You can't just eat maple syrup anymore. It has to be the purest maple syrup made by the cutest little old lady living in the quaintest tiny New England village, completely organic. And limited edition." (paraphrase)

Twenty years later, now that everything seemingly is a copy of a sample of a Xerox of a photocopy of an imitation of a bootleg, it's even more alluring.

"Do they have any dances that are like it used to be 1000 years ago??" my elder sister said on visiting my dance recital at a modern Nashville, Tennessee Hindu temple. I had to say, "not exactly," and watched her enthusiasm falter.

As I may have said before, t's only within the last 30 years that Charya has been performed publicly; previously it was restricted to Newar Buddhist temples. The mudras and songs that are the origin of modern Charya are still performed by the Vajracharya priests today.

An unbroken lineage of any kind is something to be proud of, for sure. But even what is now performed theatrically is not identical with the priestly performances.

Leaders of the New School
Getting Newars in-the-know to talk about this is gradual, hesitant and difficult - perhaps because they don't completely know themselves (only initiates can see most temple dances), perhaps because they hate to disappoint, or perhaps they are unwilling to acknowledge the reversions thinking foreigners will never know the difference.

Some Newars and other Nepalis even indignantly insist that the dance is"meant to be secret" and should not be revealed. If you need an example, just look at the comments on YouTube. "Such things should not be commercialized," one viewer fumed.

Dancers generally have never been known for their material wealth, and I imagine that the other Charya dancers sometimes fervently *wish* that the dance was "commercialized," if only to make a better living. Is merely presenting the dances on a stage, for a pittance, commercializing them?

Then there's the (apparent) fact that the dances, as presented for the past 30 years, are not identical with the esoteric rites. There is no revelation of Tantric secrets in a performance of modern Charya, though I may regret having said that when attempting to get funding for projects.

Even leaving aside the question of inclusion ( it goes without saying that women, not to mention foreigners, did not perform the ritual dances), there have been numerous alterations.

In two years of participation, I made a few practical observations. For one thing, I have seen many Newar bahal monasteries -- the space of many is far too small to perform even a scaled-down version of some modern Charya moves.

For another, I have seen numerous Bajracharya priests - with all due respect, they are unlikely to be performing some of the more acrobatic and yogic poses.

For yet another, the music presented for modern Charya often involves recorded female voices. This wouldn't be possible in traditional Newar practice; the women never did and still do not sing. Many recordings use non-traditional instruments, such as harmonium, and speed up the rhythm or add more percussion to make the song "perform" better.

This was reinforced by a visiting Chicago religion scholar who is studying the dances from a strictly scholarly standpoint. As a non-Newar non-initiate, he also has not seen the dances in the actual temples, but from his interviews with completely different sources than my own, had gathered much the same thing.

As my friend the Tibetan art dealer noted:
"My fake (replica) Khatvanga sold for more than the original one."

Why? was it just at the right place at the right time? Maybe it looked more like a Tibetan khatvanga is "supposed" to. A Tibetan lama would be unlikely to buy such an instrument from an art dealer. The contemporary lay-buyer of a khatvanga (a kind of Tibetan ritual implement - a kind of magic wand) would likely crave a certain aura around the artifact. Is that commercialization?

Maybe the new one really was "better." Or even, in its way, "more authentic."

Friday, August 28, 2009

This is a test

This is a see whether uploading photos via Blogging Directly From Email works.

(do they still do tests of the "Emergency Broadcasting System"? "This is only a test." )


Ask me no questions

No, I haven't been writing for nearly a month. There's something wrong with the Flash application on my mini laptop and I have been too tamasic to fix it.

Today, an episode at a potential "job" site reminded me of all the stereotypes of Enigmatic Asians. I totally understand how these notions got started.  You can ask a question, but unless you ask it EXACTLY the right way, you don't get an accurate answer.

Is Antonio in?

"Yes." (enigmatic half-smile)

Pause. "May I speak with him?"

"He is in the class right now."

Okay, when will he be free?

"Five o clock."

Yeah, but you close at five, right?


So when can I see him?

"At four pm." (I should add that it was 3.50 pm at the time)

She couldn't just go ahead and say "He's not available now, can you wait ten minutes?" 

I guess it was really my fault. I didn't ask the question exactly the right way. i should have asked, "When will this class end?" and the answer would have been, "At four."

This all took place at a language institute, so it was not (as I can already hear some people saying) a "language problem." 

You can teach language, but you I'm not sure you can teach communication.


Thursday, July 23, 2009

Fair to partly cloudy

Grey, green, gold, blue and white
Ranipauwa, Muktinath, Lower Mustang

Those are the colours of the landscape up here at Muktinath (in the lower Mustang region), an elevation of about 12,000 feet. Grey are the mountains; green trees; blue skies, golden wheat and white clouds. It was a precarious plane ride (between mountains, from Pokhara to Jomsom), stopped at the Magic Bean coffee shop in Jomsom for java, before walking to the shared Jeep ride.

I recommend sitting on TOP of the Jeep from Jomsom to Ranipauwa. They do not give you a discount for doing so (the ride is still 500NRS for foreigners) but it is much more fun to have the wind in your hair than to be in the stuffy inside.

Waiting for the Jeep you will see a colourful mix of fellow travellers. The Hindu sadhus are refreshing as, unlike the city "pseudhus," they are genuine pilgrims and not out for spare change. There are Tibetans and Tibetan-descended Nepalis who are native to the lower Mustang region, random "other" Nepalis, a few clean-scrubbed Western volunteers who are eager to teach the locals English, and of course, what I call the Stick Men (over-equipped foreign trekkers with their two walking sticks, one in each hand).

The morning of the eclipse dawned grey and cloudy, as luck would have it; but it was still great to be in a quiet, sacred space.

I am waiting for the camera batteries to charge; then I can upload photos.

At this time of year the region is really empty. Of course there are a lot of monsoon clouds, but they clear off a couple times a day for great views of what I assume are the Dhaulagiris.

Ranipauwa (the base village for Muktinath temple) is surrounded by more traditional villages such as Dzong ("hilltop fortress"), Purang, Lubra, Khining and Jharkot, which is home to the Tibetan Medicine society, a large Sakya gompa and an ancient ruined fort. During these first 3 acclimitization days, my walks to these villages, through golden wheat fields and meadows of flowers, have been nothing short of enchanted.

The "happening spot" in "town" appears to be a place called Hotel Bob Marley which actually is decorated in 100 percent Bob Marley paraphernalia, if you can imagine that, and run by a Nepali transvestite (very nice eyeshadow). In season I guess it is full of drunk Aussie climbers. Now it's nice and empty.

Muktinath temple is actually a walled compound (a complex complex at that) encompassing various religious expressions. The "main" temple to which most people refer when they say Muktinath is a three-tiered pagoda-style structure shoved way up under the very last spot before the mountain turns to cliffside. It's surrounded by the cold mountain streams, 108 spouts coming out of the steep hillside, so it constantly feels cleansed and renewed.

I normally associate Himalayan mountainscapes with Shiva in the Hindu pantheon, so was surprised to find it is a Vaishnav Hindu temple (though most people will claim it is "both Hindu and Buddhist"). The temple darshan (opening and closing of the doors) is controlled by a Buddhist nun. I'm going to read up a bit on the temple history.

The temple is best known for its association with Shalagrams, the sacred stones with ammonite fossils inside, said to be manifestations of Vishnu's sudarshana chakra. The stones grow naturally in the nearby Kali Gandaki river. They are for sale down below in the town, but technically you are not supposed to buy them. I think you are meant to find them, or have them "come" to you.

Additionally there are a Hindu yagnashala (fire ceremony house) where fire pujas go on daily; three very old Buddhist gompas with mostly clay (not stone or metal) statuary; a Shiva temple with an unusual iconic image (not just a Shivalingam, but marble figures of Shiva and Parvati); mountain ponds suitable for bathing, and lots of Buddhist prayer wheels.

Everywhere there are these solar cooking ovens that were thoughtfully donated by some German NGO. Great idea - to cook with solar energy rather than using local firewood, which deforests the land, or kerosene which has to come from down below. Too bad I have yet to see anyone use even one of them.

Development people need to realize: you can suggest all you want, you can lead a horse to water, but people do what they want to do. Not what you want them to do. Even when it means killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

Related reading: 
Trekking North of Pokhara Jomsom, the Thak Kola Canyon and the Annapurna Sanctuary: No 2 (Nepal trail guide)

Sunday, July 19, 2009

hostel witch in india

That's the weirdest search engine referral for my blog today (perhaps ever), according to SiteMeter.

Origin: Saudi Arabia.

Is there a hostel witch in india, and does she help you to find a hostel (like a water witch locates water)? Or does she cast spells upon hostel dwellers?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

I'll follow the sun

Tracking the eclipse
Pokhara, Nepal

I'm here in the lazy lakeside town of Pokhara, trying to figure out (among other things) the best place to go within Nepal to view the upcoming total eclipse of the sun - July 22, 2009.

Here are some traditional Hindu dharma ideas about appropriate activities during a solar eclipse.

Usually, Hindus do not perform any work during Surya Grahan and they purify themselves by taking a bath and chant mantras. A complete fast is undertaken by many Hindus during the period. In Hindu religion, taking a holy dip at sacred rivers and tirths on the Surya Grahan day is considered highly auspicious.

I am close to Muktinath, the remote Buddhist-Hindu mountaintop temple, which would seem to be an ideal place. But at Muktinath, the eclipse will "only" be about 94%.

From southeastern Nepal, however, such as the town of Gaighat, it will be 100%. It seems a shame to be so close to a 100% eclipse and not actually witness it somehow. Of course, all this is dependent on weather. I could go allll the way to Gaighat - and, being in the Terai, it is subject to bandhs and road blockages - and not see the eclipse due to weather.

Or, I could go up to Muktinath, and still not witness it properly for the same reason. I have been led to believe there are fewer clouds in Muktinath, so perhaps a 94% view clearly is better than 100% subject to monsoon clouds.

The ideal place might be Varanasi or Bodh Gaya, where undoubtedly there will be a great deal of chanting and appropriate pujas held. But as it's only 10 days away and I don't yet have the Indian visa, it might be near-impossible. July is boiling in those places; but for a once in a lifetime event, I suppose I could rough it. The Ganges at Varanasi will be absolutely swamped on such an occasion.

As Asian logic would have it, it takes as long to reach Eastern Nepal (thanks to bad roads and strikes) as it would to reach Varanasi, in the next country.

Related Reading;
Following The Sun Shadow or Ted Scott and the Great Eclipse

Thursday, July 09, 2009

We can be superheroes

Just for one day

The Lalit Kala campus reeks of urine.

That's my overwhelming impression of what should be Nepal's equivalent of the "Kids From Fame" high school. Lalit Kala ("Fine Arts") is a secondary school where classical music, singing, and fine (visual) arts are taught. The building is historic; several generations of Nepali royal court musicians used to house and practice there. But it's terribly dilapidated; the semi-modern toilet installed smack in the middle of the ground floor is only the beginning.

According to Raju who graduated from there 15 years before, absolutely not one thing has changed. Looking round the fine arts and sculpting studios was nothing short of depressing. Dimly lit, dusty, musty rooms; even the grimy brown anatomy skeleton was missing parts.

In case you haven't figured this out yet, money is not a problem in Nepal. There is plenty of money. It all goes into deep pockets! I had to wonder how a student could concentrate on anything, let alone fine arts, with such a reek coming into the old classrooms.

Raju and I performed briefly there on 15 May; we opened the end-of-term classical music show with the "Sodasa Lasya" (Sixteen Graces) item.

In order to dance the approximately 6-minute hymn, we still had to garb up in full Tantric dance gear; all this in one of the empty classrooms with no mirror. But I'm not complaining, it was my first Charya performance of any kind. Raju was dressed in the yellow gown of Manjushree; I wore the red attire of Vajrayogini.

I'm accustomed to 3-hour dressing sessions from Bharatanatyam, and Charya is quite a bit simpler in alankaram (decoration), but still involved:

-under trousers, -choli blouse, -full skirt, -mekhala (deccorative belt), -another kind of overskirt waist-piece, -a big full thavani (top part) that made me feel like a Catholic cardinal, -another top piece that fit around the breastbone, -and lots and lots of jewelery, including:

-Several sets of bangles,
-heavy silver anklets,
-bells tied round the knees,
-about five different neckpieces including the tayo or oblong traditional Newari women's piece worn by the Kumari, and
-several strands of fake pearls.

Raju drew a "third eye" on my forehead using a black kajal pencil.

My favourite part is the crown, or muthi, also called kiriti. There are several different crowns meant to be worn for various deities; this time I was wearing the skull-garland crown of VajraYogini. The grinning kapilas look to western eyes very Tibetan, but in fact it's the other way round; Tantric Buddhism with its skull imagery came from India via Nepal before reaching Tibet.

Underneath the crown is a 3-tiered topknot hairpiece; an identical wig is worn by the Tibetan monks when they perform certain lama dances depicting the Dakinis. Then the crown is tied on with black threads in three different places.

The crown looked and felt a lot like a helmet. After donning all this magical bling, I felt like a superhero - cape, implement of power, helmet of invincibility, and shields. I have often mused on the similarity between Hindu deities and the Superheroes. Vishnu particularly seems like Superman (he rests in his Fortress of Solitude when not needed; he incarnates whenever a call for help is heard on Earth, has superhuman strength and takes different forms).

After three false starts (the sound guy couldn't cue the CD right), we finally danced. It is rather un-godly to stand on stage waiting for the music to start.

Somehow I think Kathmandu needs all the cutting-through energy of Vajrayogini to eliminate the corruption that allows a noble institution like Lalit Kala to fall into such decay.

 Related reading:
Gods, Men and Territory: Society and Culture in Kathmandu Valley
 The Glory of Nepal: A Mythological Guidebook to Kathmandu Valley Based on the Nepala-Mahatmya and Himavatkhanda 

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Turning over an old leaf

This is so cool
News from the Olds

I love the image of drinking in new knowledge from ancient palm leaf manuscripts. In some areas, palm leaves are still being painstakingly inscribed with sacred information.

Lontar is deeply venerated by Balinese, anyone who wishes to read lontar regularly needs to undergo a consecration ritual (mawinten) which must be performed by a brahman priest. Lontar cannot be sold or thrown away when damaged but it can be burned with proper ceremony and offerings.

A recent archaeological project collected palm-leaf manuscripts in the state of Chhatisgarh (formerly part of Orissa state).

In the first phase of a survey conducted by the National Mission for Manuscripts and assisted by locals, around 2,000 manuscripts have been collected from various archaeological and remote sites in Chhattisgarh...

But, how do the manuscripts contain words in "texts in Sanskrit, Oriya and Devnagiri" - since Devanagiri is a script, not a language? I think they mean that Devanagiri script was used to write the Sanskrit.

The photo at left shows an ancient manuscript in Kerala, in the possession of my friend Murali in Tiruvilwalmala, whose family have been Ayurvedic vaidyas for 17 generations.

I believe the script and language shown is ancient Tamil. (Someone know for sure?)

Originally, the pages would have been strung together with a thread through the central holes.

Hinduism Today's specialized news service, Hindu Press International, is where I saw this story, and a great source for all kinds of Hindu-related news items.

In the ongoing "pick on the foreigners" thread, Nepal's Pashupatinath temple has added insult to injury by charging perceived "foreigners" (read: people who don't look if you are Assamese Indian, or a Singapore Tamil, you are scot-free) double the previous entry fee - even though "foreigners" are prohibited from entering the actual temple, lest they pollute the hallowed grounds.

It's still okay to through plastic bags of trash into the nearby river and spit on the ground, though. No fines levied for that.

Monday, July 06, 2009

I'm back, sort of

Temple of the Sword-Wielding Goddess
Sankhu, Kathmandu valley

Ack, I am suffering from what has become my annual Monsoon Illness. Somehow, hard as I try, it gets me every July that I stay in Nepal. I have got to get out of here earlier next year.

Here are a few photos from my visit to the atmospheric, remote temple of the KhadgaVajrayogini
at Sankhu village, on the eastern edge of the Kathmandu Valley.

'Sankhu Vajrayogini' is one of the four guardian Vajrayoginis ("Adamantine Goddess") that stand watch over the Valley. The other three sisters are found at Pharping, Guhyeswari (foreigners not admitted), and Swayambhu at Bijeshwori.

I hope to make a complete tour (via bicycle) of all four Yogini temples and post a yatra-logue about the whole thing.

Photos of the murti were not permitted, but I found the people up at Sankhu temple to be welcoming and very, very proud of their goddess. The young girl below (who spoke excellent English) explained to me simply, "She is our Mother."

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Art appreciation

As some of you know, I spent about four years travelling around India and Nepal, and about two of those were following HH the Dalai Lama to his many places of teaching and discourse throughout India.

Nowadays, some wags probably consider that stalking. There was a day when it was considered pilgrimage. That's what you do with saints, in the Hindu and Buddhist tradition. Saints don't stay in one place, they keep travelling. You follow them around.

Anyway, some of my favourite moments were in and around the teaching sites, where "Life's Rich Pageant" coalesces.

This photo was taken one morning in 2006 at Sarnath, Uttar Pradesh at the Central Institute of Tibetan Higher Studies, where everyone was queuing for the metal detector to get into teachings.

Last week, I received some Art Appreciation from a Flickr user named East Med Wanderer:

Great shot! All life is there - it has the quality of composition of one of the great master painters. And with a point and shoot - terrific!

Sometimes that's all it takes to make your day, or week. One of the great master painters probably would include the entire face of the purple-wearing woman at left, though - for compositional balance. That way, there would be two women facing each outside corner.

I can no longer post the larger versions of the photos - they kept getting stolen off the blog site. You can view (but not right-click) a larger version here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Independent, Indigenous, International

In Kathmandu

The Nepal International Indigenous Film Festival opens tomorrow. Here's the website and schedule.

Screenings will be at Bhrikutimandap - the Nepal Tourism Board hall and the City Hall, across the road from one another. (I think it's also called Pradarshini or Exhibition Road.) Films run through Sunday, May 31.

Admission is a refreshing 30NRs (about fifty cents) with a discount for card-carrying students.

I'm looking forward to entries about the Lepcha (the original peoples of Sikkim) and the Saami of "Lapland," said to be the last Caucasian peoples living a tribal lifestyle.

Wonder if I can crash the opening ceremony ("for invited guests only")?

Nepal ra Buddhadharma ko blog chha

Just found a Buddhist blogsite with an incredible sidebar of Buddhist online resources. Yes, they (Enlightenment Ward) do link yours truly, somewhere down on the sidebar.

More relevant and regionally-related blogs - these should give some windows into what daily life "looks like" over here, in the city at least.

Mikel Dunham: I was really pleased to find this site; the author of Buddha's Warriors evidently lives here in the Mandu and is a very active commentator on contemporary Nepal including Nepolitics.

Morten Svenningsen: Tireless documentor of daily life including protests, bandhs, shutdowns and so forth here in Kathmandu.

Roaming Redde: my friend Rene's daily adventures living and teaching English among Tibetan monks here in Boudha.

Snow Lion Foundation: All-Tibet all the time website; news, articles and blog.

You're Welcome!

Monday, May 25, 2009

Born to be mild?

Warning: for music geeks only
In Kathmandu

The latest American Idol asked contestants to sing songs released the year they were born. Adam Lambert sang Tears For Fears' "Mad World" (1980s) and Danny Gokey sang "Kiss From a Rose (maybe 1990). (Don't laugh. These guys were awesome. Really!)

Without revealing the exact year, I couldn't help wondering what I would sing for Simon. What was on the charts when I popped out?

I think I would have to sing: "Ring of Fire" by Johnny Cash,
because most everything else is from a Happy Days soundtrack.

At the same time, change was in the air with the release of The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan.

Just think how early Dylan must have sounded in among all the bubblegum.

It was a Very Good Year for...
Attitudinal Girl group classics:

"My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels
"Da Doo Ron Ron" by the Crystals
"Be My Baby" by the Ronettes
"Don't Say Nothin Bad About my Baby" by Little Eva
"He's So Fine" by Chiffons
"And then He Kissed Me" by the Crystals
"It's My Party" by Lesley Gore
"Judy's Turn to Cry" by Lesley Gore (reallly obnoxious!)

The Ronettes. I knew my eyeliner and black hair came from *somewhere*

"Blue Velvet" by Bobby Vinton
"Rhythm of the Rain" by the Cascades
"Up on the Roof" by the Drifters
"Walk Like a Man" by Four Seasons
"In Dreams" by Roy Orbison (lots of David Lynch material here)

...soul and R&B Classics to strut to!:
"Walking the Dog" by Rufus Thomas
"You've Really Got a Hold On me" by the Miracles
"Baby Work Out!" by Jackie Wilson
"Mockingbird" by Inez Foxx ("bird...yeah...yeah...Yayuh")

...tough-guy songs (on Fonzie's turntable):
"(You're just the) Devil in Disguise" by Elvis Presley
"Ruby Baby" by Dion (Elvis wanna be)
"Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen
and that bit of nonsense seemingly recorded by everyone under the sun, "Little Latin Lupe Lu"

and surf music and instrumentals.

"Surfin USA" by Beach Boys
"Wipe Out" by the Surfaris
"Pipeline" by the Chantays
"Little Deuce Coupe" by Beach Boys
and the king of Surf instrumentals,
"Misirlou" by Dick Dale

Contrast these with the Dylan hits released that year:
"Blowin in the Wind"
"Girl from the North Country"
"Hard Rain's Gonna Fall"

...Think I'll stick with "Ring of Fire."


No, I haven't written here for nearly a month. I have been (among other things) "shifting" to the long-overdue new flat, and there's no net there yet (it was of course supposed to be there, promised to be there, and now isn't; so what else is new. Installing my own router will cost some 1800NRs per month -plus down payments - another hidden expense).

The new place is very high and dry; 4th floor, lots of windows and sun and air. I call it the Cuckoo's Nest.

The sheer amount of plastic required to set up a household these days is really dismaying. Garbage bins, sponges, scrub brushes, coat hangers and so forth all involve investing in the dread substance. (I tried having a kitchen rubbish bin made of something else...not nice. And metal is about three times the price.)

Then there are the cleaning items. I looked around the other day and realized how many varieties of scrubbing and cleaning devices I had acquired in 3 weeks:
-floor scrubbers;
-sponges with scrubber only on one side (you know, yellow sponge, green scrubber);
-bottle brush for those hard to reach areas;
-floor rags including both "wet rag" and "dry rag" (we don't normally use mops here);
-two different kinds of handmade straw brooms;
-toilet brush;
-squeegee for the bathroom floor,
-and coconut husks (really, they are good for scrubbing). (Those were FREE at the market.)

Okay, so I am a child of Eisenhower-era parenting. Or maybe it's a result of so many years in south Asia, where the dirt demons prowl.

Then there are all manner of other mundane things I haven't had to think of in literal years, such as hammer & nails, bathmats and doormats, bulletin board, fan, and window screens. It's easy to see how people get bogged down in fixing up their homes. Fortunately, I have limited myself to two rooms. Anything larger, and I may start collecting stuff.

I have yet to figure out the garbage schedule here. One morning a week, a truck comes by and they blow a whistle. Then you're supposed to run down and toss in your bags. You can't leave anything out the night before; there are too many stray dogs.

Drinking water has to be brought in from outside, via the neighborhood corner-store run by a very sweet couple who have Muslim names but seem to be a bit closeted otherwise about faith. (This is unusual here, where everyone wears their faith on their sleeve like people in Tennessee advertise their favourite NASCAR drivers.) A big blue tank of the best-quality drinking water is 90 NRs (like $1.40). I had to put a 500NRs refundable deposit on each tank. A kid with a push-bike delivers the water - the bike is specially outfitted with metal ring holders, like saddlebags, one on each side to hold the tanks.

Cooking gas, and also gas to heat the hot water "geyser," is a bit more pricey. It's 4500Nrs deposit (refundable) on the heavy red-metal cylinders that dispense life-giving fire here. The actual propane contents of the cylinder are 1100 Nrs or so per tank.

Then, I still had to come up with an actual gas stove. This runs anywhere from 2000Nrs to 4000 or so. I can't help wondering how average Nepalis, who make perhaps 2500 Nrs a month, come up with these deposits. That explains the kerosene cook stoves owned by the very poor (much cheaper than propane).

But, Thank Gods (there are lots of them to choose from here) the power is mostly back, and the rains appear to have started. Hope I don't jinx anything by publicly stating this.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Peace sign

I adore this hand-painted billboard, that I snapped near Guntur, Andhra Pradesh three years ago.

It depicts a Jain saint seated peacefully among animals, and (in Telugu script, but Sanskrit language) says "Ahimsa paramo dharma," or, "Nonviolence is the greatest religion." 


Related reading:
Religion and Culture of the Jains.

Heritage, or hate?

Religious or racist?
In Dailekh, Nepal

I'm not saying I have an answer. Just putting it out there.
Parkala Matha

Brahmin priests in Dailekh have padlocked temples of the district to protest a recent verdict of the district court.
...(a) court verdict three months ago imprisoned a Brahmin priest on the charge of untouchability.
On April 12, the court sentenced Dipak Upadhyay... for refusing to tie Raksha Bandhan (holy thread tied around the wrist on Janaipurnima day) to a dalit local.
...Claiming they have the right to perform religious rituals as per their wish, the Brahmin priests padlocked a dozen temples...
District chairman of Hindu Vedic Sanatan Parishad (HVSP), Tilak Rijal, said the priests did not need to perform religious rituals for all the people.
"Practicing untouchability" - that is, discriminating against those traditionally considered of lower Hindu castes - has been made a crime in India and Nepal, though in remote areas such behaviour largely goes unpunished, and many old ways are still observed.

So, is this religious freedom, or racism? Or, at the very least, illegal discrimination? Should the courts be able to tell houses of worship whom they must accomodate? How would we feel if it were a White Supremacist church (they do exist) refusing admission to someone of another race? Is that even a valid analogy? Many Hindu temples specify "Hindus Only"; however, the Dalits themselves are Hindus. Does this mean they have to admit all Hindus regardless of caste?

And if there is a tradition of excluding certain Hindus, how much does the tradition matter? That is, is it beyond the law ?

Just asking questions.
 Related reading:

Monday, April 06, 2009

Witch hunts and scarlet letters

Ring ring, Pot? this is Kettle calling
From Patan to Pakistan

Even a cursory glance at the Indian media and blogosphere shows people getting pretty uppity about the horrific Pakistan flogging case.

Other South Asians don't have room to talk. All this stuff happens regularly in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, and they don't even usuaily do it "in the name of Islam."

Take last week's case of a Nepali girl - not even in a remote region, but here by the urban centre Kathmandu - accused of witchcraft and tortured. Pyuthar village is within Lalitpur District (very near, if not precisely within, the capitol city)

And that, by a primary school headmaster! If this is what the educators are doing, imagine what the "general populace" are up to, or at very least, what an example that sets for them.

I scoured all the reports I saw, and still could not find an account of what exactly the poor girl had actually done, nor of what exactly she'd been accused of doing ("witchcraft" could mean anything at all, from drawing a design on the ground to being seen with the wrong person).

BK was allegedly tortured by villagers in allegation of practicing witchcraft. BK said she was beaten up, abused and even made to eat human excreta by a group of people in the village. Mar 27 09

I am glad, for lack of a better word, that the flogging case is being spotlighted this way - as it deserves. But such treatment is not so unusual, nor restricted to places like Swat Valley. .

Cycle of life

A bicycle built for me

I rented a bike. wheee!!

This is nothing new - I have rented push-bikes in Pondicherry, Pune, Tanjavore and BodhGaya, and Honda motor scooters in many places. But this is my first rental in Kathmandu (way, way over 'Du) and this time I rented a heavy "road bike" with wide tires to deal with the crap roads here in the city.

Ramakrishna Cycles is a completly unpretentious cycle shop over on Sorakhutte near, but not in, Thamel. Dhruba, the shy kid from Dhading who helped me, rented me an aluminum-frame seven-speed bike. I took it for a week and he bargained a bit on the price, but I love it so much, I think I may have to buy one.

Dhruba offered tea to me and my friend Amy. We sat on the low Nepali woven-straw round stools (they look very African in design, come to think of it) behind the counter. Dhruba and his bike shoppe-mates appeared, and sounded like (from their soft voices and genuine smiles), a bit of unspoilt Nepal. That is, they didn't seem cynical and greedy from too much contact with corruption or gangster culture.

I asked Dhruba the standard opening question about his "native place." Dhading is a town just one hour or so outside Kathmandu, but for all its proximity, its living standards are very remote.

The bike makes locals assume you are filthy rich. If it was just an old made-in-India green push bike, I don't think anyone would notice. A nice multispeed road bike? I was *besieged* by waifs and, at the Kal Bhairav shrine, 'attendans' harassing and insisting that I give money to the god (this, while my hands were folded in prayer).

Anyway, unless you get out very, very early in the morning, the old back streets are useless on the bike - you have to get out and walk anyway. The big, ugly, open modern multi-lane roads are negotiable, but in Asian traffic, no one can hear you scream (or honk or pedal). A bell or horn is a definite must for survival!

Survey says....

And, hooray for our side
News from India

At last! Sex and Power, the book by Rita Banerji (creator of the 50 Million Missing project for Indian women) has been released!

It's now available on and last week, was #1 on the Bestseller list of Crosswords (one of India's largest bookstore chains).

The 50 Million Missing project began as a photo collection and has now become an international campaign to stop "India's silent genocide," the selective elimination of female infants and fetuses.

You can easily help the project by taking their Gender attitudes survey.

It only takes four minutes to complete the 50 Million Missing project's gender survey.

Rita says:
1. They don't give their names (it's anonymous) 2. Don't think too much. Just answer. 3. Takes less than 4 mintues 4. Don't forget to click 'submit' at the end

Here's the link

 Related reading: 
Women in Ancient & Medieval India (History of Science, Philosophy & Culture in Indian Civilization)

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

What's your sign?

I am almost afraid to ask. What is a leprosy BIBING hall?

Could they mean a sort of dining hall, as in, "imbibing"?

Seen near Tapoban, upper Rishikesh, UP.

Vegging out

Where to eat, continued

Last week was remarkable in that I met two pure vegetarians who were not foreigners. (A foreign Buddhist or yoga person is more likely to be vegetarian than a local Hindu or Buddhist.)

Ravi is a Nepali by way of India (family of Marwari Jains), and Nikesh is an Indian Brahmin who owns a business in Nepal. Naturally, the subject came up: where do you eat?

Most places in town accomodate vegetarians well. But for the purist, there are very few dedicated vegetarian restaurants. In this case, dedicated means not even having meat products on premises. In the strictest sense ("Pure Veg" as they say in south India), it means not even using eggs.

Thamel's Israel-Middle Eastern restaurant, OR2K, is veg but uses lots of egg. Newari and other Nepali restaurants will make a veg set meal, but sometimes cook items in the same pan that's used to cook meat, resulting in ingestion of meat essences and flavours.

With branches in many parts of town (Putalisadak, New Road) and a main hall at Tripureshwor right by Bluebird, Angan is probably the best all-around pure veg restaurant in town. They cover a range of Indian cuisines from North to South to West (Gujarati dhokla!) to East (Bengali sandesh sweets) and have a large, airy, clean dining hall up and downstairs in Tripureshwor. The other locations are more cramped and have more limited selections. Their Rava Dosa Plain is exceptional, the sambar great. They are a branch of (I think) India's Bikanerwala.

Not surprisingly, the pure-veg restaurants in town are all (as far as I know) Indian-owned. My favourite is Trishna Mitai in Lazimpat, before Shangri La. They are Bengali-owned (telltale icon of Dakshineswar over the counter) but do feature good south Indian dishes such as Uttappam and Idly, as well as samosa-chat-chai. I especially like the grandmother who sits in a chair behind the corner and gives me a beautiful smile. She never fails to wear sari and a pure chandan hand-painted tilak.

Two more pure veg Indian shoppes are Dudh Sagar on Kantipath, just opposite Mandala Books (they do have idly, wada, dosa and uttappam!) and Bandar's, a Rajasthani-owned small diner off New Road by Pyukhan Marg. Bandar's may be the only place in town to try Rajasthani Thali.

One Thamel spot that guarantees they use no egg is Shree Lal's House of Vegetarian. Though they seem very sincere, the food I got (dal makhani) was mediocre.

Two more sources of veg food (don't know whether they use egg, though) are the Kopan Monastery canteen way up on Kopan hill, and the Rabsel guesthouse run by Shechen Monastery. In Thamel there's also the old standby Pilgrim's Bookstore Cafe - always shanti, always veg - and the Himalayan Buddhist Meditation Centre cafe which has now moved to Tridevi Marg near Kesar Mahal.

Related reading:

Monday, March 30, 2009

Punching Lamas

Nutshell synopsis:
It's a familiar formula that still never fails to jar and enrage: The Chinese as saviours of that which they have destroyed; protectors of that which they despise.

De-coding the cryptoganda

News from China

There's lots of "Panchen Lama" in the news this week, what with the Chinese government's Serf's Emancipation Day being forcibly observed in Tibet, and their "World Buddhist Forum" featuring their very own child star, the puppet Panchen Lama.

So, looks like it's time for my semi-annual Panchen Lama blog.

A Tale of Two Lamas
People often ask me: "Will the Panchen Lama be the next Dalai Lama?"

First of all, not really, as they're two separate offices. Once you've been recognized as a Panchen Lama, you cannot become a Dalai Lama and vice versa.

Second, depends on exactly to whom you're referring.

The PL usually referred to as the "real" one, Gedun Chokyi Nyima, at left, hasn't been seen since 1995.

The "PL" currently appearing at the Forum is a hand-picked Chinese stand-in, and he would become something like "a new Dalai Lama," if the Chinese government had their way.
A five-year-old boy was chosen by the Dalai Lama as successor to the 10th Panchen Lama in 1995, but he has disappeared from public view since his selection became known. China's critics ... called him the world's youngest political prisoner. (from the Boston Globe)
The Chinese puppet "Panchen Lama," known by Tibetan loyalists as "Panchen Zuma" or Fake Panchen, is being trotted out as the key guest at China's own "World Buddhist Forum."

Conspicious by their absence: all the world's most famous Buddhists, like His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, HH the Gyalwa Karmapa, and Vietnamese Rev. Thich Nhat Hanh, among others.

I wonder whether any of the participants in this "conference" disputed or boycotted the absence of HHDL - as Tutu, DeKlerk and many others are in the case of South Africa's failure to issue Him a visa for an international peace conference?

Of course, we all know it's not safe for the Dalai Lama to go to China. But it seems any real Buddhist leaders worth their mani mantras ought to boycott such a conference being held in China.

Like McCartney's post-Beatles re-education campaign to depict himself (rather than Lennon) as the real "artistic" one, the Chinese government continues to rewrite history and cast itself as a saviour and proponent of Buddhist culture and religion.

Note that many of these "news" stories are from the official Chinese press, such as People's Daily. I give you clips as they are delivered to me by Yahoo News Alerts (Keyword: Buddhist).

Experts: Protection of intangible Buddhist heritage in China significant
People's Daily Sun, 29 Mar 2009 23:13 PM PDT
Buddhist experts attending the World Buddhist Forum over the weekend called for enough attention to the protection and inheritance of the intangible Buddhist heritage. "Buddhist culture is an important part of the intangible cultural inheritage in China"....

What a nice statement. Too bad China was and is one of the prime destroyers of that intangible culture.

In a similar vein:

Chinese Buddhists urge international cooperation in scripture researches
China Economic Net
Sun, 29 Mar 2009 19:23 PM PDT
Buddhist experts attending the World Buddhist Forum here called for international cooperation in researching and protecting the Tripitaka, the encyclopedia of Buddhist culture.

And here are appearances by the stage-managed Chinese Panchen:

China's Panchen Lama criticizes "unscrupulous" foes
Boston Globe Fri, 27 Mar 2009 01:01 AM PDT
The young Tibetan anointed by China as its Buddhist figurehead for the region said Tibet faces assaults on stability from an "unscrupulous" individual, in what appeared to be a thinly veiled denunciation of the Dalai Lama.

Panchen Lama, businessmen weigh Buddhism's impact on business
China Economic Net

Sun, 29 Mar 2009 19:22 PM PDT
Singing, listening and taking notes, the 11th Panchen Lama, Bainqen Erdini Qoigyijabu, attended a forum Sunday here with businessmen and monks, where they discussed
Buddhist philosophies related to business.

I thought the Chinese kid's name was Gyancain Norbu...??

...and on the stories can tell which news sources are China-approved and which are not by whether they specify "the China-backed Panchen." This Taiwanese paper carefully notes the irony of "officially atheist China turning to Buddhism":

China turns to Buddhism to calm Tibet, Taiwan tensions Sat, 28 Mar 2009 18:18 PM PDT
WUXI, China -- The Beijing-backed Panchen Lama addressed an international Buddhist audience in English on Saturday, as officially atheist China turned to Buddhism as a balm for internal unrest and international tensions.

It's a familiar formula that still never fails to jar and enrage: The Chinese as saviours of that which they have destroyed; protectors of that which they despise.

Related reading: 

Himalayan Tragedy: The Story of Tibet's Panchen Lamas 

Party line

Indian media-watchers will have a familiar response to this headline:

12:07, March 29, 2009

When I saw this, I immediately said, "It HAS to be The Hindu."

And, so it was.

The democratic reform in China's Tibet Autonomous Region abolished the theocratic system, did away with feudal serfdom and slavery, emancipated about a million serfs, and laid the basis for the modern development of the region as a part of the Chinese socialist system, an Indian newspaper said Saturday.

The reform in 1959 brought forward China's project of freeing a million serfs, said a leading editorial published by The Hindu, one of India's major English newspapers, which echoed the celebration of Tibet's first Serfs Emancipation Day, an official annual holiday, and denounced the Dalai Lama's past persecution of the Tibetan people.

The Hindu, otherwise a well-regarded and venerable established paper, has an extremely pro-China and pro-Communist editor. I heard he gets free trips to China courtesy their government to keep printing anti-Dalai Lama crap like this. 

Related reading:  
India and Tibet; a history of the relations which have subsisted by Francis Younghusband

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Dry, dark and dirty

Round midnight

In a country now famous for having no electricity, how is it that "a short circuit" around midnight caused a serious fire at the Sri Bagalamukhi temple in Patan Sunday night (March 16), destroying much of the carved-wooden pagoda style temple?

""The temple uses too many lights, which can sometime lead to short-circuits,"" an officer at Nepal Electricity Authority's Pulchowk office said."

Minor detail: There's no f**king electricity.

Bagalamukhi, one of the 10 Tantric Wisdom goddesses, is depicted as standing atop a demon, beating him down while snatching his tongue out of his mouth to silence him.

This image is sometimes interpreted as an exhibition of stambhana, the power to stun or paralyze one’s enemy into silence. This is one of the boons for which Bagalamukhi’s devotees worship her.

(her mantra translates as):
...Oh Goddess, paralyze the speech and feet of all evil people. Pull their tongue, destroy their intellect.

Perhaps, the Devi's own comment on suppression of the free press here in Nepal.

Shortly thereafter, the unbearable six-month dry spell finally broke, first with a smattering of rain on Wednesday night. The next day brought nothing but tantalizing rumbles of thunder and dry cracks of lightning. Thursday night, the electricity (which had gone off at 12 midnight) suddenly came BACK on at 12 again, only for a moment...then switched back off.

It wasn't till Friday afternoon we found out that Father John K. Locke, Jesuit scholar and father of Newar Buddhist studies, had died at precisely that time; midnight on Thursday night.

On Friday night I got another unpleasant surprise, in the form of my first Nepali groping. This one was a drive-by - two young men on a motorbike decided to take advantage of their speed and anonymity by grabbing my right breast as they sped past. Such incidents are well known and much-discussed among Indian travellers. Nepal, land of the Buddha and Tantra, is becoming another place where women have to go into Purdah - even in the middle of the tourist zone.

We still hadn't gotten a proper rain till Saturday afternoon, when it finally soaked the thirsty ground thoroughly.

The traditional rain god of the Valley is Rato Matchhendranath ("red lord of the fishes"); his worship is mandatory to bring the much-needed rains. Now that Nepal is "secular," I guess we have to worship Rato Prachandranath. He's the new Red God. Rather than being pulled round in a chariot, he's driven round in a limousine.

Related reading: Chinnamasta: The Aweful (sic) Buddhist and Hindu Tantric Goddess. (book reviews): An article from: The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

And we're back!

सो मच फॉर थे शोर्तेस्त २-वीक ट्रिप एवर, व्हिच अमौंतेद तो तवो देस
Whoops, hit the wrong button. So much for the shortest 2-week business trip ever, which amounted to 2 days. Anyway I am now here to annoy the trolls on a regular basis again.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


As suggested, I have added the Following Widget, but seem to have deleted most everything else on the Sidebar.

It'll all get back to normal in a few weeks when I return from a trek to East Nepal. See you after March 22, and happy Spring Equinox, Holi, Passover and Easter.

Saturday, February 28, 2009


Thanks to Double T of Black Cats Manor, I am happy to confirm that my photo "Makar Sankranti" was indeed published in the new Lonely Planet coffee-table book, A Year Of Festivals.

Lonely Planet requested a larger version for a half-page shot, but I was unable to access my photo DVDs which are, I think, in a trunk in Rishikesh.

The down side of perpetual traveling.....wonder if those photo DVDs are still any good.

 Makar Sankranti

Here's where you can purchase the book or a calendar:
 A Year of Festivals (General Reference)

Festivals Calendar 2008

Friday, February 27, 2009

tiny asian goddess

tiny asian goddess
indian women unwashed
red and blue in india

It's a new poetic form...making three-line verse out of random search phrases from your Sitemeter. In other words, these (each line) are phrases someone somewhere typed into a search engine, and got my blog as a result.