Monday, March 29, 2010

Dakinis of peace

In the summer of 2008, I followed a group of Tibetan protestors in Kathmandu throughout their entire day - preparing banners, moving from their dwelling site to the protest site surreptitiously (Nepal police were expecting protests, so Tibetans in large groups were likely to be waylaid), and rehearsing nonviolent protest techniques.

Previous protests had involved struggle - the shouting demonstrators would approach the Chinese embassy or consulate and refuse to move. Most of the photos I (and so many other photographers) got were the same day after day - lots of pushing, pulling and gnashing of teeth.  Though I very much supported the demonstrators, I felt it was becoming predictable, and righteous anger is difficult to sustain day after day, for several hours, on an organized basis.

Protestors included Tibetan laypersons, always some monks, and usually a few nuns.

One day, there was an unusual number of nuns involved.  That day, the technique changed. The nuns just lay down on the pavement, shrouding themselves with Tibetan Snow Lion flags.  It was so unexpected, even the police started laughing.  Their gentle prostration turned everyone's expectations on their heads.

These nuns were so sweet, shy, and humble. I reflected on their daily lives in the Tibetan Buddhist world. They don't get many of the privileges afforded to the monks, and their education is often just learning to recite and memorize scripture without the higher teachings of philosophy.   Several projects (Kopan Monastery for Nuns in Nepal, and Tenzin Palmo's Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in north India) have begun to redress this situation, all with the blessings of HH the Dalai Lama. 

In Tibetan tradition,  Dakini (Tibetan Khandro) is a female embodiment of enlightened energy. Some Dakinis are full-fledged deities, but others are semi-divine and wear human bodies."The outer-outer dakini is a dakini in human form. She is a yogini, or Tantric practitioner in her own right." With or without the 'higher' philosophical teachings, the nuns naturally embodied the Enlightened Female Energy - Dakinis of Peace.

Please copy this photo and share it anywhere you like (just don't charge money for it).  Because my computer crashed shortly thereafter, this is the largest file I have for it, and it's too small to sell commercially. But when you look at it, see the Dakinis flying.

Related reading: 

Between the babas

Backstage at Babastock
Kathmandu, Nepal

Ever wonder what those sadhus from Durbar Square - the ones who want money for photographs - do when they're not out begging for alms? They chillax backstage at Kathmandu's Pashupatinath Temple, in the babas' ashram.  These shots were taken just after Shivratri, 2009.
Backstage with Baba

Sadhus (male and female - females are called Sadhvis) come from India as well to be at Pashupati for Shivratri.
Tiffin Time for Baba
By tradition, the Nepal government was obliged to provide ganja, or at least subsidize its purchase, for the Hindu holiday Shivratri (which occurs annually in February). The new, non-Royal, non-Hindu government of Nepal may put a stop to that. Last year the newspaper featured reports of complaining Babas - they didn't receive the customary amount of rupees to subsidize the holiday smokfest.

I found the Pashupati Babas - while quite laid-back - to be also rather career-minded. Most of them make a few rupees as photographer's models. They all had the equivalent of press kits - a stash of carefully-preserved photos and even magazine clippings they had appeared in. The fellow below is showing off some of his portfolio.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Looking ahead

Kids from the Udana Tsunami camp (a special meditation program for kids from the tsunami-hit areas) visit Nilambe Buddhist meditation centre, near Galaha, Sri Lanka in 2005.

These kids were all from the most affected (east coastal) areas of Sri Lanka.

The camp was organized free of charge for them by Nilambe Centre, my favourite place in Sri Lanka. It's one of the best meditation retreats in South Asia and very reasonably priced. You spend some 8 hours a day in silence, which I loved.

In this photo, they seem to be looking forward with hope.

On the curve

Jantar Mantar
Originally uploaded by Sirensongs
My entry to the Lonely Planet Photo Challenges contest, "Curves."

These fellows were perched on one of the sundials at Jantar Mantar, built by Maharajah Jai Singh II in Delhi circa 1764.

You can view the other contest entries on at

Saturday, March 06, 2010

In my neighbourhood

Kumar Shubankar
Originally uploaded by Sirensongs
Shubankar lived downstairs from me in Koregaon Park, Pune - where the restaurant bombing just happened on Valentine's Day. He lived in a traditional "joint family," with a bit of a twist - the husband and wife (Shubankar's parents) had moved in with the *wife's* parents, rather than with the husband's as per tradition.

The family were my landlords, it was their building. They were entirely accustomed to having foreigners come and go, they just asked that I be in before 11 or so.

Shubankar was all dressed up for his school Fancy Dress Competition as Chhatrapati Shivaji, the Marathi leader and hero of not only the Marathi region but Hindus everywhere.

He won the contest, so I took these photos and not only printed them for the family, but took them to be laminated and mounted with a stand.

This type of remembrance will make you very popular with Indian friends and landlords. It really is all about the family.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

English lessons

The Aura of Auroville
Pillaichavady, Tamil Nadu

This is a journal entry from my time teaching English in a small town in Tamil Nadu, 2004.

Distances in and around Auroville are vast, and most local people do not have access to motorized transport. For me, a delightful highlight of life here are the local hitchikers on the verdant Auroville red-dirt roads. Usually women and small children, they stand on the roadside, armed with school bags, a bucket of fish, or a basket of vegetables, and flag down zooming scooters, mopeds and motorcycles.

Enge po kirrai? I ask in my limited Tamil. Kuilapalayam, Edaiyanchaady or Periyarrmudialarchavady , the polysyllabic village names come tumbling from their mouths. I scoot forward so they can hop onto the back (sometimes as many as 3 schoolgirls sitting behind on the pillion). Naturally, this slows down my own commute, but I don't mind....the village ladies with their crooked teeth, nose discs of gold and bright floral saris, the tiny school kids whose chubby little arms clutch round my tummy,
their squeals of fear or delight each time we hit a bump in the road - my being a few minutes late for class seems a small price.

Yesterday a tiny boy wearing a red puja mark on his forehead flagged me down on the Boommayapalayam back road at 7:15 AM. He was on his way to school, and took the opportunity to both practice his English (what is your name? My name is Danil. Where are you going? I go to New Creation School in Kuilapalaym) and instruct me in Tamil - as we passed things (tree, cow, dog) he yelled out the English and Tamil names.

Danil was not well-dressed and was very tiny. It brings a tear to a middle-aged eye to see such eagerness to learn and so much sweetness. It was easily an hour's walk to his school, but there he was trudging down the road bright and early.

My Language Lab English classes are a mixed bag. One class will be a runaway success with everyone yelling out answers and getting into it - the next will have a bunch of dud, dead spots where lose momentum and the kids begin to lose itnerest (begin to chat amongst themselves, etc). It's still very gratifying - but the new car smell (novelty of an American teacher) has worn off a bit, which means, I must figure out the challenge of actually teaching them, not just entertaining them.

Today some of the girls tried to stand up when I came into the room and I insisted they sit down (traditional respect for the teacher, but it was alarming to me).

I try to get them to talk about their lives and their world - instead of just repeating the lines about shoppes, prices and places in their textbooks. The last 2 assignments I gave: write a story about yourself and your day.

"My name is Vijayalakshmi, I live in Boomayapalayam. My house is behind the banana tree...
...I am eating rice every day. I am watching the television every day.
...Every day I go to work in Auroville at the Health centre, then I go home. "

They are too polite to tell me when they are bored or don't understand. Once I even asked them do you like this exercise, or do you want to do something else? and was met with blank stares - then I realized that, probably in their entire lives, no one had ever asked them what they WANTED to do. As they see it, a teacher, particularly, is supposed to be giving orders - not engaging in some kind of touchy-feely dialogue.