Friday, February 25, 2011

Age of Aquaria

Bhaktapur (Nepal) is a great place to observe the continuation of traditional lifeways. Here, young ladies of Bhaktapur draw water from a community well. In cultures across the globe, fetching the water is women's work.

I liked the way they mingled classic Newar vessels, such as the narrow-necked brass pot, with the mass-produced ones (the plastic jerry cans on plastic twine). In the same manner, some women wore the traditional Nepali side-tie blouses; the others, t-shirts and jeans.

Recently I read that the brass "kumbham" had been a de rigeur wedding present in Newar culture. Nowadays, it's considered dated. People prefer to receive modern gadgets.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

What's your sign?

-Seen in Chandigarh-

Inside the Le Corbusier-designed High Court building, which was undergoing "upgradations" on a hot April day.

The dust and disarray felt as though the real, chaotic India was moving into the modernist architecture's vision of order and austerity.

Monday, February 07, 2011

What's your sign?

Just ask the Axis
-Old Jomsom, Nepal

Jimi Hendrix never went to Nepal (or India for that matter). But why should that stop the Jimi Hendrix Hotel, in Jomsom, from having one of the most imaginative signboards around?

"Your chance to stay in the same lodge as Jimi Hendrix."  I always wondered whether, during the 1970's Asia Overland hippy golden age, a backpacker freak resembling Hendrix had stayed there, posing as Hendrix (would the locals have known Hendrix at that time?), or whether the guest house's name was a wholesale invention.

No doubt, the former skydiver from Seattle would have enjoyed the "comforts of hot shower and clean water, delicious food and soft beds," not to mention "South Nilgiri mountain and Dhaulagiri view range."  But most especially, "Good music," and "friendly people and smiling faces."

The Jimi Hendrix Hotel should not have surprised me; after all, I'd just come from Ranipauwa (several hours to the North), where one can stay in the Hotel Bob Marley.

Jomsom is the gateway to the Annapurna region of Nepal.   In search of a cheap sleeps,  I went inside the JHH to check it out. Jimi Hendrix Hotel is off the more recently-constructed beaten path, in an area called Old Jomsom, a twenty-minute walk from conveniences such as internet, travel agents and money changers. It's by far the cheapest lodge in the area and did indeed exude a peaceful, "shanti" atmosphere, possibly because no other visitors were in sight.  At least I would have the bathroom all to myself.

As it was monsoon season (early August), the gurgling of glacier-fed streams surrounded the guest house and winds whispered through the river-willow trees.  Rather than buying an overpriced bowl of tsampa (barley meal porridge, priced for tourists at some 150NRS), at the local stores, I could buy an entire sack for twice the price.  Packets of milk and yogurt were available at the Dairy Stand, where ordinary Jomsomians buy them.

After a few days, I left Jimi and Jomsom, continuing the trek down toward Marpha and eventually to Tatopani and Dumre.  With my sunburnt brow and unshaven legs, I wasn't exactly a Foxy Lady, but I did feel a bit more Experienced.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

The Great Game

Indo-Sino-Himalayan Intrigue!
Siddhbari and Dharamsala, India

Why would the Himachal Pradesh monastery of  revered Tibetan lama HH Gyalwa Karmapa house a reported $1.6 million in various foreign currencies, including enormous amounts of Chinese yuan - why, except that the Karmapa must be "a Chinese spy"?

The traditional South Asian paranoia of the dreaded "foreign hand" has again reared its ugly sira in the Himachal police's January 27 raid on Gyuto Monastery, home to the Karmapa lama since he fled Chinese-controlled Tibet in 2000 at the age of fourteen.  Xenophobia, coupled with resentment and jealousy of the tremendous international money and attention focused on India's Tibetan refugees, would appear to be at the root of the Himachal state government's vitriolic attack on the Tibetan community. 
Despite their dispossessed status, the community and its religious institutions have brought Himachal Pradesh untold millions in tourist revenue.

Might the cash stash be explained by the fact that Karmapa's Kagyu denomination of Buddhists had only recently (December 22, 2010) concluded the enormous Kagyu Monlam international prayer festival, which draws donations from devotees and Buddhist foundations spanning the globe?  And could the Chinese yuan be explained by the fact that Karmapa has a sizeable Chinese devotee base? 

Unlike the Dalai Lama, the Karmapa is officially recognized by Beijing, even considering Karmapa's escape to India.   The annual Kagyu Monlam in Bodh Gaya is dominated by Chinese devotees, as anyone who's tried to find a seat under the otherwise-serene Bodhi Tree without getting elbowed by them can tell you.  (Also, visiting Tibetans from across the border give donations in Chinese currency.)

Nope, that's too simple, too easy - and far too logical. Karmapa must be "a Chinese spy."  This is the type of illogical elaboration that in the past led Indians to create mind-boggling, fantastically embellished art forms.  The results aren't so enthralling in realpolitik.

Today's news shows that Himachal Chief Minister Prem Kumar Dhumal is busy setting up intelligence cells to monitor the activities of the state's Tibetan population, which number in the thousands (India's Tibetan population in all states totals 94,200). Spying on the state's most prosperous community will surely lead to more troves of treasure. Tibetans have also been told to "stop protesting" and peacefully assembling and ordered to cooperate with the state's investigations.

Indians often wonder aloud why Tibetans don't just get with the program and become Indian citizens. This just wasn't possible, until very recently, when the Delhi High Court ruled that a Himachal Tibetan woman's application for citizenship must be honoured.  (The judge also ruled that a previously established policy denying Indian citizenship "by naturalisation under Section 6 (1) of the Citizenship Act to the Tibetans who entered India after March 1959 is erroneous and hereby quashed."  This would seem to open the door for Tibetans desiring enfranchised citizenship within India.)

Therefore, Tibetans are poised to become an integrated part of India. Dhumal's accusation puts Himachal behind the Indian national curve.

Not surprisingly, the most sensible statements are coming from the ever-unshakeable Karmapa himself.  His statement of February 2: 
“India had become a second homeland to the Tibetans. We all have taken refuge and settled here. The country, in contrast to communist China, is a democratic country that is based on the rule of law. Therefore, I trust that things will improve and truth will become clear in time. So please be at ease. There is no need to worry,” the Karmapa said.

And I believe him.  This type of malicious attack belongs to the backbiting India of yesterday, a nation so insecure that it saw enemies in the corners of its own eyes. India's embrace (albeit sometimes theoretical) of Tibetans, allotted by the idealist Nehru, set an international example.  The medieval accusations of  the Himachal government won't bear the scrutiny of modern light.

"Let the investigating agencies do their work. Truth will prevail."

Escape from Kathmandu: Top 5 Urban Oases

Escape from Kathmandu is a book by Kim Stanley Robinson, which I saw constantly while in the city, and never read. 

It's also something you'll want to do frequently while living and working in Kathmandu. The city has its share of magic, but more than its share of air and noise pollution. The Mountain 'Du is a perfect example of how increased "prosperity" can actually made a place less liveable.  An increasing number of  personal vehicles on the road, paired with zero emissions laws and aggressive "horning" habits have turned the pagoda-filled valley into a smoggy cauldron. Increased political awareness and labour organization mean more frequent garbage strikes, with mini-Mount Trashmores accruing on every other corner.  Negotiating the obstacle course of a Kathmandu street can provide great practice for rural trekking.

Fortunately, behind its traditional brick-masonry walls, Kathmandu hides a number of gracious courtyards where soothing fountains flow, sunlit gardens quietly thrive, and iced drinks are served in the shade.  The "valley of Shangri-La" was thought to be a hidden paradise amongst craggy mountains; similarly, these urban oases offer respite from the grime.

1.   Hotel Shangri La Shambala Gardens:  Along with the Yak and Yeti, Shangri-La is the old, established face of genteel higher-end Kathmandu tourism. The Shambala garden, designed by artist and Nepalophile the late Desmond Doig, serves Illy coffee imported from Italy and seemingly endless sunny days.  Spotless white parasols provide shade on the lawn, or you can take refuge from the sun in the glassed-in terrace. The swimming pool is available to outsiders on weekends, and Shangri La's restaurant serves decent Indian, Nepali and continental food. 

2.   To step off noisy Gaushala (the name means "Cow shelter") and enter the gates of Dwarika's heritage hotel is to truly experience another city within the city.  Dwarika Das Shrestha devoted his life to collecting the intricate hand-carved wooden pieces being discarded by Kathmandu's modern property developers, not knowing what he'd ever do with them, but sensing their innate value.  His hobby eventually became this hotel, which doubles as a museum for Newar art heritage.  The complex manages to be enormous and intimate simultaneously, and each room feels individually appointed and hand-crafted.

Dwarika's is located rather out of the way, unless you are on your way to either Pashupatinath or the airport, but is well worth the taxi ride.  As a true star hotel, Dwarika's offers no less than three restaurants - the main terrace with its adjoining (and icily air-conditioned Library Lounge), the Fusion bar and restaurant, (which serves a mean Lychee-flavoured frozen margarita), and Krishnarpam, where traditional Newar maharajah's meals ranging from six to twenty-two courses are served (must be ordered in advance).   If you're on a budget, stick to the lemon cheesecake and the iced tea, which with its cinnamon-lemon-mint flavours, has to be some of the best in the world

3. Kantipur Temple House is less illustrious than Dwarika's, but with its central Thamel location, far more convenient for most travelers. A stroll down the labyrinthine streets toward the neighborhood known as Jyatha will bring you to the courtyard of the Temple House, where you can easily alternate between the cool shade of the interior or the soothing sun of the gardens.  KTH prides itself on being entirely eco-friendly, using no disposable plastics and furnished entirely with locally crafted products.  It's perfect walking distance from both the busy Kantipath main road and the historic locations of Durbar Square, Hanuman Dhoka, Swayambhu and Ason Tol. 

4Garden of Dreams was concocted in the 1920s as a classic Victorian "folly" of Field Marshall Jung Bahadur "Kaiser" Shamsher (namesake of the neighborhood, Kaiser Mahal), during a phase in Nepali history when local rulers were smitten with European tastes and trends.  The soi-disant "Kaiser" made mini-Versailles with pavillions and environments representing the six traditional Nepali seasons (spring, summer, monsoon season, early autumn, late autumn, and winter).  After his time the garden's gazebos, fountains, statues and cupolas fell into disrepair, and were recently (2006) restored by Goetz Hagmuller and the tireless Austrian team of art historians who also organized the Patan Museum.  Though only three "seasons" could be saved (others having long since been demolished to make way for lucrative tourist properties), the Garden's tasteful blend of neo-classical, traditional Nepali, and modern features live up to the name.  Entrance is 180NRs for foreigners or, for long-termers, a mere 2000Nrs for annual unlimited membership (about $30 US).

5.  Hotel Nirvana Garden is another pleasant surprise within Thamel, all the more so for its proximity to the hustle and the high-decibel rock music that pervades the area from 8pm to the wee hours.  A lush garden with waterfall and noisy frog pond will soothe your traffic-shredded ears. It's located just round the corner down a backstreet from the world-famous Kathmandu Guest House.

A personal favourite (and round the corner from my flat) is the restaurant Tushita (translation: place of contentment).  The coffee is good, the food mediocre; but its traditional Brahmastanam architectural structure is uplifting and spacious, with plenty of cool corners to hide in, and free wi-fi.  The real heart of Tushita is "Dai," a senior Newar gentleman unfailingly atted in flawless topi-daura-surwal, who performs Buddhist pujas daily in the lower courtyard. Tushita also has an unadvertised, small guest house with a loyal following in the garden behind the restaurant.

There are still more hidden gems - Babar Mahal Revisited, Mike's Breakfast, Cafe Imago Dei, and the gardens of the sequestered Hotel Vajra. Gritty on the surface, modern Kathmandu secretly retains the laid-back ways that made Nepal so popular with road-weary backpackers 1970s hippie overland days.  

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

What's your sign?

No Open Heads

Continuing the "What's your sign" series...

This, seen in Nizamuddin Dargah, Delhi.

A Dargah is a mausoleum or tomb for a Muslim saint. Nizamuddin Dargah, constructed circa 1563,  houses the remains of Sufi saint Nizamuddin Auliya, as well as those of Amir Khusro and Jehan Ara Begum.  The tomb of Inayat Khan is in the same neighborhood, round the corner.  There's one area of the tombs into which women are not allowed (I can't remember which, but don't worry, signs are clearly posted).

Thursday evenings at the Dargah feature live Sufi Qawwali music from about 5pm, and continue only about two hours. Admission is always free.

The simplest way to reach the Dargah is just to hop in an autorickshaw and say, "Nizamuddin Dargah" (it's near to Humayan's Tomb, but every driver should know the Dargah).  You can also take Delhi's spiffy Metro to Central Secretariat, but you will still need to take an auto from there. 

Nizamuddin will immerse you in Delhi's rich medieval history of Sufis, Mughals and minarets.  As with Hindu temples, the road to a Muslim dargah is lined with stalls selling appropriate offerings. Rather than oil lamps and sindoor, they feature incense, roses and glittery green cloths to drape on the tomb.  The atmosphere is male-dominated, with some interesting exceptions.  At one stall I saw a woman, head demurely covered and carrying a basket, conversing with the stallkeeper. It didn't even take a second glance to see this was a transgendered person.  She was obviously well-known to the local merchants.  In a previous age, perhaps she would have been a court eunuch or even a court entertainer.  So much has been lost, in a time when Muslim culture is dominated by Taliban and ayatollahs.