Category Archives: Travel

A Monkey Temple…good karma and a mantra

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“I can’t go in there, you two go ahead.” I’m adamant. But all the same, my husband and son try to convince me. “No I’m certain. I’ll wait here with Mohan.”

Mohan is our driver in Jaipur and we’ve arrived at our destination, one that I’d prefer not to be at. He’s driven us about 10 km outside of the city. Manoeuvring on a narrow country road, we’ve threaded through small villages with once stunning architecture. We’ve circumnavigated more cows than I’ve seen possibly anywhere in India. Cow-patties attest to this; large numbers of them bake in the afternoon sun. They’ll soon be used as ‘firewood.’

We’re now parked in front of the gate of the pink-hued Galtaji Temple. Except that I can’t bring myself to go beyond it…this is also a Monkey Temple.

A cow stands patiently at the gate as if wanting to enter. But me, I harbour no such desires despite continued pleading from Bruce and Matt.

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“Believe me, there is nothing I’d rather do less. You saw how afraid I was earlier today with just a few monkeys.”

I’m referring to the scene that morning. A Skype call with my parents on the verandah of our hotel suite, a waiter serving me freshly brewed coffee, his colourful tunic striking a pretty picture against the archways, then…’pop, pop, pop!’

“Goodness, what was that?” mom asked with alarm. Spinning the computer around to the scene of a uniformed security guard aiming his air rifle, I answered rather matter-of-factly, “Oh, just the guards keeping the monkeys away.”

“Really, I’m surprised you’re so calm,” she remarked. They are well aware of my fear – I don’t know where it came from. Nonetheless, it seems today won’t be the day I conquer my pithecophobia.

Back at the monkey temple, I tell Bruce and Matt that I’ll stay in the truck with Mohan. Noting there is nowhere else to go, I wave them off as they disappear behind the dreaded gate.

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Mohan explains how sacred this temple is. “Many people come once per month, very good karma ma’am.” He tells me of his beliefs and then with a bit of coaxing, Mohan chants his Om mantra, his morning prayer. It’s beautiful and evocative of the devotion that infuses this culture. All too soon the mantra comes to an end.

Back to reality, the large red gate with the mark of Om is to my left and to the right? Well I finally dig up the courage and decide to explore…I don’t see any monkeys on this side of the gate.

After telling Mohan it was lovely that he shared his mantra, I suggest we take a small walk. I’m immediately overwhelmed with the smell of cow manure and urine. As we arrived, there had been a group of cows with people gathered around, but I hadn’t realized the significance.

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“Ma’am this very holy too,” Mohan says as I survey the surroundings. One lone tree, a shop with shading umbrellas and a barn-type structure at the far end. “People come to feed holy cows, sometimes before work. Good karma,” he emphasizes once again.

In Hindu belief, the cow is considered sacred and held in high esteem. It is seen as a caretaker, a maternal figure because of its ample resources; dairy products, strength for tilling fields and dung for fertilizer and fuel.

“Feed the cows?” Mohan asks, motioning to a heap of ragi on a cart outside of the shop. You can buy a handful for a few rupees.

“No I’m fine. Thank you though.” I then notice peanuts on display and put two and two together.”

“Ah the guys could have bought food for the monkeys, that’s a shame,” I say to Mohan. Then nodding to the shopkeeper, trying to make small talk. “Monkeys like?”

“Yes good, good,” the peanut seller says warmly. He has a captive audience with the temple-goers having to pass his establishment.

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The Galtaji Temple with its water pools was built a few hundred years ago. Now perhaps some five thousand monkeys call it home. Its environs get even busier during festivals and yet more lively. Curiously, jumping from the surrounding cliffs into the tanks is an attraction.

“Monkeys and people use the bathing, good for soul,” Mohan says as we wander further. Of course the image of communal bathing reels in my mind, but it dissolves as we come upon Saba.

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Saba

“This is cow shed for holy cows and keeper. This Saba,” Mohan acknowledges the man as he steps from the barn. Cows munch on ragi behind him as Saba stands at his gate. He does not smile. His silence speaks volumes.

I wonder if this is a small goshala, there are thousands of these institutions that care for old and infirm cows. With more than three-hundred million of them in India, the highest in the world, some of the luckier cows will finish their life in a goshala rather than abandonment when they are no longer useful.

Most cows are owned in India and traditionally each household had their own. They were part of the family with names and personalities and as with most pets, you would not hurt or eat them. It is now common to see them foraging throughout the day, then making their way back to their owners at sunset. I have seen it often; a string of cows sauntering home just as it gets dark. There’s a saying in India…“If you can’t remember your way home, follow your neighbour’s cow.” 

‘I’ll buy water,” Mohan says as we turn back around to the shop. I notice Saba has made his way here as well, it’s right next door and he seems more at ease now. He orders a chai and the seller asks once again if I’d like peanuts for the monkeys. Politely foregoing the temptation of the ragi and the peanuts, I wander across the smelly, dusty road to strike up a conversation.

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Mohan

A  young man has the deep-orange mark of the monkey god between his eyes. The shades of oranges in Rajasthan are vivid and have great meaning attached to them. The man motions to his mark. “Hanuman,” he exclaims with a proud smile. He doesn’t speak English and Mohan isn’t particularly pleased that I’m attempting a conversation with him.

I finally see my two guys emerging through the gate. At least an hour has passed and they’re effusive.

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The mark of Hanuman

“It was fantastic you should have seen them Ter, swimming and playing,” Bruce says swiping through his photos to share with me. One shows a monkey standing on his shoulder. There’s a video of a baby scampering along his arms and a family frolicking in the pool.

“Come on Mom, we’ll go back in,” Matt says hopefully, like he’s ten years old again and doesn’t want to leave the fun-fair.

“To be honest, let’s get on the road,” I reply, shying away from the photos…and the monkey urine on Bruce’s shirt. It’s mingling with the aroma of cow. Yet I’m pleased to see these two have shared this unique Nat Geo experience. One that I’m convinced will come up more than once around the family dinner table!

“Sure, let’s go. Are you ok Ter?” Bruce asks.

“Oh yes, I had my own little adventure.” I’m thankful I left the safe-haven of Mohan’s truck.

The peanut seller gives me a wave as we pass and I mention that they could have bought peanuts to take to their new friends. “Matt we could go back in and feed them,” Bruce says. He’s only half joking.

“Keep driving please Mohan.” He chuckles. “Yes ma’am not liking the monkeys. But very sacred here.”

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After a quick stop for the two to shower and change, we drive to Nahargarh Fort as its position on a hill over Jaipur is the ideal location to view the sunset. As we make our way along the fort walls to the outlook, monkeys dart in and out of the imposing yet romantic structure. A large monkey sits on a low wall that we have no choice but to pass.

I begin to breathe rapidly and grab Matt’s hand for protection. Shielding my eyes, my body tenses as I rush past the substantial primate.

“Mom I had no idea. You really are afraid,” Matt says slightly bewildered. “You’re ok, we’re past him,” he assures me.

Then calling over his shoulder, he announces to Bruce, “Dad, I don’t think mom would have done well at the monkey temple, good thing she didn’t join us.”

Well now that’s an understatement…

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But in fact as interesting and as sacred as some people believe monkeys to be, the situation in India is one worth mentioning.

Simply, there are too many of them. This is evident on the streets of old Jaipur and apparently the situation is worse in other cities including Delhi, the capital.

Monkeys have habituated themselves to urban living and often terrorize in large numbers. They seize food and other items, they bite and attack with serious implications; ninety percent of monkeys carry tuberculosis. No we hadn’t realized this – Bruce assured me ‘the temple monkeys were very well behaved.’

Yet having no natural predators they are considered by many to be out of control, but the belief that they are the reincarnation of the god Hanuman ensures they are safe from any attempt to decrease their numbers. A quote by a government official further confirms their role in religious folklore, “These aggressive macaques cannot be the incarnate of Hanuman, they surely belong to the evil monkey king, Bali.”

The practice of feeding monkeys on Tuesdays and Saturdays for good karma contributes to their reliance on humans. Of late, discussions have intensified as fear and destruction continues. When one of the waiters at the Haveli heard we had gone to the temple, he was eager to show us an image of his village’s beautiful town hall. The monkeys keep tearing it apart. “Twice the community has repaired it. These monkeys are most destructive.”

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They also cause havoc on farms as crops are destroyed across the country. I find reports of farmers having deserted their land with no solution on the horizon. The numbers of monkeys rises unabated.

It seems then that designated temples are a good environment for monkeys (and humans), but it’s only a ‘drop in the ocean’ considering the numbers.

The same problem doesn’t exist where we live in Bangalore. I’ve evaded them in a number of parks, but thankfully I rarely see them on the streets in our area.

So for now, a visit to a monkey temple is checked off the list of ‘must-sees’, at least for two out of three of us.

For me, the highlight was Mohan sharing his evocative mantra.

But there have been many special moments in Jaipur. I hope this musical slideshow captures a little more of the ‘pink city’ and its environs…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ode to romance…to the ‘pink city’ of Jaipur

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Dear Jaipur…

You welcomed us twenty-eight years ago and we return nostalgically to you. There has always been a fondness for the ‘pink city.’ As young travellers you offered us colour and mystery…the romance of a storied destination.

You are much busier now. Your Maharaja-designed 18th century streets are in constant motion; a stream of life and noise, of endeavour and exuberance.

Tuks, camels, cycles and bullocks, strain both people and cargo through lively streets. Monkeys scamper on ledges and peer through stamp-sized shutters. A procession; a swirl of a wedding marches past as a band trumpets, an elegant groom on his festooned horse – to the bride’s house he gallantly goes.

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You still beguile and please with your facades, lattice work windows, your streets washed in soft shades of pinks, roses and salmons.

   The signature Hawa Mahal, Palace of the Winds, is still your calling card. Evoking the richness of Maharajahs and Maharanis, it is a fine blend of Rajasthani and Mughal styles with miniature domes and delicate screens, all nine hundred and fifty-three – modest viewing galleries…for the ladies.

 

 Moghul inspired archways, peacock doors and splashes of frescoes fascinate the eye. They are tributes to your past; of proud Rajput warriors, fairy-tale palaces and flourishing bazaars.

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But your beauty is also in the finer details – bangles upon sparkly bangles, slipper-shoes of soft camel leather, bejewelled textiles and intricate block prints.

And perhaps just the simple – golden pomegranates on laden trees, toys of old newly discovered and heavenly corners to luxuriate within. We find divine comfort in the Samode Haveili…it becomes our haven.

 

It all feels like a past remembered – familiar yet newly captivating. We are entreated from all corners – to ride, to purchase, to visit, to partake, to view the beautiful.

Lemony and saffron turbans wrapped atop weathered faces hint at untold stories. Ladies primp and pose, tradition captured in cautious smiles. Young entrepreneurs bargain a good price and Mr. Chand’s outdoor photo studio recaptures us in monochrome memory. We still have the photo from years ago, we believe it was taken here. “Maybe me or my father,” Tikam Chand contemplates. “Yes still here, isn’t it?”

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 I am coaxed to an astrologer’s chair – this city is known for its mystic vibe of bespoke gems and stones, sage-like astrologers and stargazers. And for me a first. I don’t believe, but still…

“Sunrise and meditation is good for you. Maybe you think too much and please madam, you must wear white on Mondays. But good life, good marriage.

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He doesn’t know that twenty-seven years of marriage has just been marked. Perhaps fittingly, on a postcard of the Hawa Mahal, my beloved wrote… 

We would never have imagined that our journey together would have taken us this far and into so many corners of the globe. ..Thank you for being my travel partner of nearly twenty-nine years – my past, my present, my future.”

And so dear Jaipur, the monsoon rains cooled as we traipsed barefoot on your ancient stone, welcome respite from your desert climate. We soaked up your enduring sites, luxuriated by candlelight and dined on fine Rajasthani cuisine. We weaved through your scented bazaars, climbed the heights of formidable forts and spied peacocks under the shade of ashokas.

Indeed more luxurious this visit – the backpacks have long been put away. Yet it was here those years ago, that our travels sparked a romance and now beckoned us to return. So with a fond farewell Jaipur, you will always be a jewel in our traveller’s souls…

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A train passage to Enchanting Hampi…

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Night train to Hampi – day one

The Hampi Express pulls into Bangalore just before 10 p.m. Hauling a staggering number
of carriages, it almost snakes its way back out of the station as hundreds of people rush at it. Those with general tickets jostle to find a seat; the 365 km journey to Hampi is a long way if you must stand.

We have the luxury of being booked in a four person sleeper. Two sturdy ceiling fans, frayed burgundy curtains and packages of linens await us…Southern Indian Railways bordering their edges. Two long seats below will transform into beds, while above, two bunks are perfectly serviceable for those who don’t toss and turn.

Lulled to sleep by the gentle locomotion, I am awakened through the night by the absence of movement at various stations. At one, I pull back the curtain as the unwelcome light from a platform threads into our compartment. On a station bench a tall gangly figure is wrapped in a shawl, arms on knees, his eyes pierce mine. I modestly retreat behind my drape, but as we roll along through the night I imagine all the people. All of the lives in the small villages that line the track…some seventy percent of India lives rurally.

I peer outside just before sunrise, steel factories loom against the awakening sky. This land is rich in iron ore and I see shadows of families scavenging scattered pieces, tumbled from passing trains and scooped into wicker baskets.

Hampi unwrapped – day two

The cry of a chai wallah from outside our compartment awakes us– an informal announcement that we’ve arrived at Hospete station. We disembark at 7:20 am, two of us rested, one of us groggy. Our senses are immediately heightened as we alight. Carriages disgorge flocks of passengers. Porters proffer their services twirling cloths into mini turbans on crowns of heads, a ready perch for a bag or two. Wallahs announce and drivers implore, tuk-tuk, tuk-tuk?

We have a driver waiting and he is soon maneuvering through traffic along with stray dogs, cows and bulls, wild pigs and piglets…all navigating the lively streets.

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After a quick refresh and breakfast at our hotel, we’re back on the road and the lush countryside welcomes us. We pass bullock cart after bullock cart laden with feed, crops and the fruits of the land. I understand why this site was chosen as the heart of an empire. The Tungabhadra river runs through the valley bringing sustenance to sugar cane and banana plantations, rice paddies and coconut groves. It is fertile and beautiful.

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A few kilometres down the road we come upon Hampi, a richness of deep-red soil framed by massive monolithic boulders. Shades of bronzes and rust, pale pinks and greys offered a natural defence (and building material) for the once mighty Vijayanagara Empire. After waiting for a shepherd and his goats to pass, we enter through the narrow Talavaraghatta Gate. One passes into an enchanting land…

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Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hampi has attracted settlers, travellers, traders and pilgrims since the mid 1300’s. With ruins that rival those of Rome and Pompeii, accounts from early foreign travellers capture scenes from the past…

DSCF1078“Travelling about three-hundred miles from Goa, we arrived at the great city of Vijayanagara…sixty miles in circumference…ninety thousand men bear arms. Their king is more powerful than all the other kings in India. He takes to himself twelve thousand wives, of whom four thousand follow him on foot wherever he may go. A like number are handsomely equipped and ride on horseback.” Nicole Conti, an Italian traveller, 1420

The lore of Hampi is not only infused with tales of an extravagant and powerful empire, but with the presence of gods, goddesses and heroes – a connection to the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic which follows Prince Rama’s quest to rescue his beloved wife Sita from the clutches of Ravana with the help of an army of monkeys. We learn this through Basava, our guide throughout the day from Explore Hampi.

“Everyone calls me Hampi Basava,” he tells us. The son of a farmer, Basava grew up hearing tales of the great empire from his grandmother, inspiring him to share the richness of his hometown. As did encounters with archeologists who excavated the site, “I learned much from them, but still learning.”

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The Vijayanagara empire reached the zenith of its power under Krishnadevaraya from 1509 to 1529. Over time the city of Vijayanagara Pattana, became simply ‘Hampi’ and hosted the Pan Supari Bazaar with its daily market and almost one-thousand meters of stalls.

We walk the broad boulevards now quiet and forlorn, but I can still feel and hear the pulse of the people. The clatter of hooves mixing with the slow squeak of a rusty oxen cart. The calling of traders from colonnaded street-long bazaars. Colours gleaming against the scorching sun – gold and jewels glinting. Exotic spices, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood piling in peaked domes. Sensuous silks and imported Chinese blue and white, hiding in the shade of the columned stalls. A chiseled relief of a fish announcing a nearby water-well. A sign suggesting the courtesan’s bazaar…always held on a Tuesday.

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In 1520 Domingo Paes, a Portuguese horse-trader, wrote…”In this city, you will find belonging to every nation and people, because of the great trade which it was and the many precious stones there…the streets and markets are full of laden oxen.”

We approach the Vitthala Temple and I am instantly mesmerized. The massive enclosure has lofty gopuras (pyramidal temples) to three sides, grandiose protection to Vishnu’s mode of conveyance, the opulent stone chariot. “The wheels were once capable of turning,” Basava assures us. The king, concerned with the long treks the pilgrims endured to the sacred temples, entreated the weary pilgrims…Take the energy of the wheels.

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The nearby mandapas, intricately columned gathering places, are exquisite. Relief carvings depict dancers, drummers, voluptuous courtesans and warriors, royal elephants and sartorial hints of foreign visitors…a fez from Morocco, a cloak from Europe, a turban from the Middle East.

Basava taps on musical stone pillars sending harmonious notes through the open air pavilions. The granite architecture has beguiling lotus motifs with traces of colours that once decorated and hints of Chinese, Indo-Islamic and European influence. We see shrines, sculptured gateways and monuments to a legion of gods, Shiva, Vishnu and Ganesha, a god favoured for good luck.

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Nearby at the Royal Enclosure, the queens private bath, the royal stage, the king’s underground shrine and even a stepped water-tank speak of grandeur. The king had admired it else elsewhere and imported it piece by piece, step by step. Numbered and reassembled in its odd- numbered formatting. These are the numbers Indians favour – 1 for a preferred God, 3 for the past, present and future, 5 for the elements, 7 for the days, 9 for the planets.

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By late afternoon the much anticipated monsoon-rain threatens on the horizon. Clouds roll over orchards and palms, and the granite-bouldered sky. It’s been a stifling hot day, the wind picks up and the clouds shower upon us. We don’t mind. It is cooling and refreshing. “Raindrops like lotus buds,” Basava says lyrically. “The farmers will be blessed. Come, we can’t miss the elephant stables.”
The number varies as to how many elephants the kings kept, accounts speak of anywhere from four to nine-hundred. Twelve or so royal elephants resided in the lavish stables. Domingo Paes elaborated…“The elephants are covered with velvet and gold with fringes, and rich cloths of many colours, with bells so that the earth resounds. On their heads are painted faces of giants and beasts. On the back of each one of them are three or four men, armed with shields and javelins.”

imagesWe dash across the rain-soaked grass to the stables with its lofty doomed roofs, surely too beautiful to only house elephants. But these beasts were an integral part of daily and royal life, fitting of an empire that ends…abruptly.

 

IMG_5164I almost don’t want to hear the fate of this once great city. In 1565 the empire’s armies
suffered a catastrophic defeat by an alliance of Muslim sultanates. The great city was captured, plundered, holy Hindu sites destroyed and more than 100,000 Hindus massacred. As with many great empires, its life cut abruptly short…its heart and soul ripped away.

On a mountain side at the end of the day, we stop for a cooling drink of coconut water. The river gently flows below us and I hear a haunting voice, repeating like an ancient mantra. Lost in her own thoughts, a tiny aged woman crouches under the shade of a boulder. The plaintive strains of her lyrics punctuate the day. Quietly I sit, and listen.

 

 

 

A coracle across the river – day three

With the option of a small ferry or a coracle, we chose the latter. The round cane-bound vessels have plied this river since before the days of the empire and though precarious to board, we float peacefully down the Tungabhadra River. Only the warnings of crocodiles concern us…the monkeys play in the temples, the sloth bears and leopards stay on land. Patches of leafy greens contrast the boulders that seem set to topple into the shallow waters. Temples are chiseled from the granite, integrated seamlessly into the chunky contours of the land.

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We walk a kilometre or so along a winding road, through a hamlet and past emerald fields. We pass local teens playing cricket, heaps of sugar cane piled on stout wagons and the shell of an old coracle now tidily protecting firewood.DSCF0802

We reach Anegondi the 3rd century capital of the Vijayanagara empire. Yet even before then, legend speaks of the monkey kingdom here as noted in Ramayana. Local story-tellers refer to Anegondi as mother earth, one of the cradles of dynasties.

After walking through its ancient gate, we are almost immediately upon the town square, a ceremonial ‘temple car’ parked off to one corner. Unlike the stone chariot in Hampi, the elaborately carved wooden ‘car’ can be pulled through the streets on festival days. Rickshaws, town-folk, holy-cows and cyclists manouver a smooth, black-stoned sculpture…perhaps it is the town round-about.

 

Close by, the Gagan Mahal begs to be restored and I picture how stunning the palace must have once been with its lattice work detailed arches and breezy terraces. While I’m peeking inside, Bruce is surrounded by village children. They flip through our guide book and hoist themselves up on the stone wall. I line them up for a photograph and on a whim decide to buy them a drink. Our ‘child’ is back at the hotel recovering from sun-stroke so we’re happy to improvise. It’s Father’s Day after all.

We march the troops across the street and besiege the small shop. The shopkeeper is surprised, perhaps he knows that news travels fast in this sleepy town. Before we know it, yet more youngsters gather and holler out their drink of choice. “Now enough,” the shopkeeper firmly cuts us off as other customers await their turn, not entirely amused by our generosity.

We wander further, the same children pass on their bikes and shout a ‘hello, namaste, thank-you.’ We stroll onwards through the streets.
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Rice shifts and slides from bamboo baskets.

 

 

 

 

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Bangles are offered from a turbaned peddler.

 

 

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Slathers of mandarin-orange paint brighten a simple village home.

 

 

I am happy here, surrounded by shades of pinks, baby-blues and soft greens. It reminds me of those romantic, carefree days of travelling in India from our past…no agenda, no expectations, just the hope of serendipity.

We travel the ferry back across the river, taking the bus instead of a tuk-tuk to the hotel and unbeknownst to us, the next day we’ll hire a car instead of returning home by train. Southern Indian Railways inexplicably cancels our return tickets. We can stand, we can wait five days until sleepers can be booked, or we can see the countryside by car. There isn’t much choice, perhaps it is what I hoped for after all. And my lingering image?

As we leave Hampi behind, a group of nine or so people journey along-side the road. One waves a bright red trianglular flag, each person wears a matching scarf – no bags, no luggage. They are pilgrims.

“Going to the Hampi temple,” our drivers enlightens us, “finding sleep in temples along the way.”

“How far have they walked?” I ask.

“Maybe days are there, or weeks from village.”

For many this will always be a spiritual and magical place.

 

 

 

Haida Gwaii…majestic and spiritual home of the Haida

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This is my first guest blog written by my son, Luke H. Wilson and his girlfriend, Trixie Pacis. On a recent trip to Haida Gwaii, they beautifully captured the essence of this remote, yet culturally rich destination in Canada’s Pacific North West.

 

The Highland Ranger took a sharp turn into a small cove and skidded to an abrupt stop on the pebbly beach of what once was K’uuna village. We disembarked quickly, eager to explore and relieved to be on land after two hours sailing across choppy seas. The rugged shoreline looked much like we had seen of Haida Gwaii so far, an archipelago of 150 islands located between Vancouver Island and the southern tip of the Alaskan Panhandle. On an Easter getaway from the city, we had reached the main island on a small propeller plane—its age belied by lavatory ashtrays.

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The morning mist revealing stunning vistas

Formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, Haida Gwaii was renamed in 2010 as part of a restitution agreement between the indigenous Haida Nation and the provincial government of British Columbia. Despite its pristine wilderness earning it a spot on National Geographic’s list of ‘must-see places in the world’, it seems that relatively few have heard of it. For us, the notion of exploring Haida Gwaii first came from an unexpected source—a chance meeting with a German hitchhiker during Trixie’s solo road trip to Alaska last August. The almost spiritual wonder with which he spoke about the island resonated; we were curious to see if it would evoke a similar response in ourselves.

On the road to the Queen Charlotte harbour earlier that morning, we had no choice but to interrupt a convocation of eagles swooping and circling over their roadkill breakfast; there’s really only one main road on the island. As we passed slowly and reverently, we counted seven Bald Eagles perched in the trees above, piercing eyes ever watchful. Though tempted to linger for this rare and intimate glimpse of nature, we had a boat to catch.

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Captain Volker and Watchman Walter

We arrived at the docks as the morning sun burned through the mist, revealing pine-covered islands and snow-capped mountains. Equipped with extra layers and flasks of steaming coffee, we walked down the gangway to meet Danny, the colourful owner of Highlander Marine Services.

The guiding season doesn’t technically begin until May, and his company doesn’t typically offer guided tours, so it was by chance and generosity that this expedition came together. Coincidentally, Danny had been on our flight to Haida Gwaii, and was able to work some magic for us. He arranged our passage into Gwaii Haanas, the National Park Reserve and UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises the southern-third of the island.

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The Highland Ranger, our trusty vessel

Here we were on the Highland Ranger, two of twelve Haida Gwaii first-timers from all over the world. To prove the vessel was sound, Danny wryly explained that the Ranger had once even been used to recover a decomposing grey whale from the harbour. He introduced us to our captain, Volker, who’d worked his entire career on local waters, and our guide Walter, who’d spent many summers leading tours through the historic sites of Gwaii Haanas.

We were told that one such site, a village known as K’uuna (or Skedans by early European fur traders), would be our first stop. As we sped Southwards, we were whipped by crisp winds, sprayed by heavy waves and battered by the abrupt rise and fall of the boat’s metal benches. But breathtaking vistas and a thrilling, up-close encounter with a pod of grey whales made the journey more than worth any discomfort for self-admitted landlubbers.

At first glance, K’uuna didn’t appear to be much. In place of the well-preserved Haida village we had perhaps naively envisioned, we found a lush patch of forest nestled beneath a steep cliff, flanked on either side by a rocky, driftwood-laden beach. The only visible dwelling was a newly constructed cabin housing the summer watchmen who maintain and protect the site throughout the ‘busy’ tourist season. Walter had spent many summers as a watchman and it wasn’t until he began to walk us along K’uuna’s winding trails—marked with bright white clam-shells—that we slowly began to realize the extent of the history they watch over.

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Two mortuary poles, one leaning and one resting on the ground, protected by white clam shells

The ancestors of the Haida Nation first reached the islands of Haida Gwaii as early as 13,000 years ago. They developed a complex culture harmoniously intertwined with the abundant resources of land and sea. At one point, as many as 100 villages had cropped up throughout the archipelago—vibrant enclaves of skilled artists, seafarers, warriors and traders. European contact, which began in the late the 18th century, was initially an economic boon for many Haida clans who used their trading prowess to take advantage of the insatiable foreign demand for fur pelts.

This relationship ultimately had tragic consequences as diseases transmitted by the European traders and subsequent Christian missionaries decimated indigenous populations, wiping out 90% of the Haida people in a matter of decades. The scourge of smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis was so virulent that by 1890, the vast majority of villages had been abandoned entirely. We learned of this as we walked the paths of K’uuna; the white clam shells preventing us from unwittingly disturbing human remains and serving as a stark reminder of the catastrophic fate that had befallen it.

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Fallen roof beams under a blanket of moss

Before the epidemic, the village was home to over 700 people living in thirty communal longhouses lining the sheltered bay. Walter showed us all that remained of these dwellings—rectangular depressions in the soil, now overgrown. Could this be all we’d traveled so far to see?

But our initial disappointment soon faded as Walter began to paint for us the history of his people. As he pointed out four cedar corner posts—waist high and rotting —once supporting a longhouse, he described how numerous families lived, cooked and socialized under one roof. They were clearly once impressive structures, sometimes up to 30 meters long and over 15 meters wide; however, despite their size, custom required them to be constructed in just one day. According to Walter, the superstitious villagers feared that evil spirits would occupy the building site if it was left incomplete overnight.

The residents of a particular longhouse were rarely involved in the building of their own home; that task was given to members of neighbouring clans—a tradition designed to promote peace and unity throughout the community. Intricately carved and painted “house poles’, once adorning the front of the homes embodied totems of revered animals; orca, grizzly bear or mythological thunderbird. Each represented the identity, lineage, and social standing of its occupants. The shores were once also dotted with ‘mortuary poles’ honouring past chiefs and other prominent individuals. The largest of the Haida poles, these had a cavity at the top where the remains were enshrined, allowing the physical body to return to nature while providing an earthly home for the spirit of the deceased.

Few of the many totem poles that once towered over K’uuna remain; some still defy gravity, raked at alarming angles, but most lay on the ground beneath a blanket of moss in various stages of decomposition. Walter pointed to a faded carving of a bear. We crowded around the fallen pole, straining to glimpse the faint outline. Without Walter’s help, the symbolism of the carvings might have been lost on us. He revealed that in his time as a watchman, he had seen such a dramatic deterioration in the poles that he believes, in as little as a decade, the once beautiful and striking poles will be unrecognizable.

Instinctively, we asked: shouldn’t all of this be preserved so future visitors have the opportunity to learn about Haida culture first-hand? Walter paused thoughtfully, “In our culture, we believe that everything should be allowed to return to the earth”. This simple, yet profound, response provoked a fascinating discussion that continued throughout the day as much of what we observed circled back to the delicate and often contentious issue of cultural preservation.

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At Queen Charlotte Cultural Centre

At one point, Walter turned our attention to a mortuary pole and indicated that it was one of many painted by Emily Carr, the renowned British Columbian artist who traveled to Haida Gwaii in 1912. Her depictions of the haunting scene she found in K’uuna are an example of early attempts by outsiders to record Haida history, and she was not the only one to show concern.

Anthropologist Wilson Duff led an expedition to ‘salvage’ artifacts from the village in response to the encroachment of the logging industry in the 1950s, the repercussions of which were still evident in the scarred terrain beneath our feet, and the tire tracks left at alarming proximity to several mortuary poles.

Facing such threats, many were cut down, rolled to the beach using logs, and carted off to various places. (It is suspected that a container of poles—some no doubt from K’uuna—is to this day stored at the University of British Columbia, neither displayed nor allowed to return to the earth.) Though Duff had obtained permission, we got the sense there were, and likely still are, members of the Haida Nation who feel his actions were a sacrilege. Towards the end of our tour we passed a mortuary pole, slanting forty-five degrees but supported by a makeshift wooden brace. Walter shook his head, “I don’t know who did this but it’s not the Haida way—it should’ve been left to fall.”

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The rugged coast

At the end of a long day, which included a stop at Tanu, a larger Haida site and the final
resting place of celebrated sculptor Bill Reid, it was time to return. As the
Ranger pulled away, we were struck once more by the island’s pristine nature; from our vantage point, there was no sign that we—nor 13,000 years worth of thriving, industrious inhabitants—had ever set foot ashore. Sailing north towards the Queen Charlotte harbour, we reflected on what Walter called the ‘Haida way’; an understanding of equilibrium and a willingness to let nature take its course. We realized that behind us was one of few truly wild places remaining in the world, one that wouldn’t exist without the Haida Nation’s continued practice and defense of their ancestral beliefs.

Two weeks later, we found ourselves admiring The Raven and the First Men, a seminal
Bill Reid sculpture featured at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (MOA). We roamed the adjacent gallery of totem poles and wooden chests, taken from Haida villages and put on display in modern, climate-controlled rooms. We roamed the outdoor exhibit where several replica poles and two impressive longhouses stood at full scale. While it helped us to better

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s indoor exhibit. 

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The Raven and the First Men by Bill Reid depicting the birth of the Haida people

visualize what K’uuna and Tanu might have looked like, we couldn’t help but notice that they were staged on a man-made beach that was a poor imitation of its wild counterpart. However, we realized that while we were lucky enough to see the sites in person, it’s certainly not sustainable.

With the MOA drawing 150,000 visitors annually, we can only imagine what that foot traffic would do to K’uuna’s lightly trodden pathways. Though the exhibit is well-curated and an effective way for people to discover the richness of Haida culture, we left the museum wondering whether these artifacts were being deprived of their natural resting place.

As you read this, wind and rain are smoothing away the once distinct and beautiful carvings. Tree roots grow through the fallen poles, absorbing and recycling their nutrients. In as little as a decade, the carvings will be indistinguishable, and not long after, the poles will disappear entirely. Though the footprint of the early Haida people on the land may have faded, the ‘Haida way’ lives on—in Walter’s words of wisdom, in the continued carving and raising of totem poles, and in the evolution of the culture to balance modernity with tradition.

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Totem poles in Skedans, circa 1878

We were left with the impression that the people of K’uuna would have been content to see their poles return to the earth, so long as their traditions and values remained. We were moved by the pristine haven that is Haida Gwaii and left with a deep respect for the guardians of this majestic place and a determination to learn from their relationship with nature. Perhaps this is the legacy we should immortalize.

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The UBC Museum of Anthropology’s outdoor exhibit contrasted by Haida Houses

A Bangkok love story…art, elegance and companionship

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“Siamese pink was the navy blue of Thailand and Mr. Thompson had a way of combining this with colours no one had dreamt of. He was a talented colourist, above all else.”

Our hostess, I’ll call her Lily, shows deference to her ‘boss’ as we slowly wind our way through the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok. To build his home, Thompson sourced six traditional structures which were dismantled, loaded onto barges, then floated to the plot of land he had bought in 1958.

As a former architect, Thompson would not only fashion an elegant residence which became a landmark in Bangkok, but his preservation of traditional Thai buildings would encourage wealthy Thais to better preserve their heritage.

Jim Thompson was the founder of The Thai Silk Company. Throughout the late fifties and into the sixties, when one’s ship docked or plane landed in Bangkok, one naturally made a beeline for the company’s trendy shop. In the early days Thompson would often be there, draping customers in vibrant silks with his refined, creative eye. It is recounted that few women could resist the newly exotic, must-have fabric…or indeed Thompson’s charms.

If you had a little money or notoriety, you might garner an invitation that evening to his renowned home, the heart of Bangkok’s social scene. Thompson treasured it and shared its unique ambience most evenings by hosting drinks and dinner parties.

“It’s in the evening when the house is at its best,” Lily says dreamily as we approach the large drawing room with its stage-like design open to the elements; the orchids, the palms, and the klong, a backdrop in silhouette. “It is magical when the soft lights illuminate centuries old buddhas, tapestries, sculptures and rare paintings. But it’s also when the mosquitoes come out and maybe even the spirits.”

I do wonder if Jim Thompson’s spirit is felt. He disappeared on Easter Sunday 1967, and in the years before that tragic time, he built a legacy of bringing Thai silk to the world and awakening the need to preserve Thai and Asian artifacts. He collected these with passion. It is still inconceivable to many that all these years later, Jim Thompson’s disappearance remains a mystery.

Thompson had exchanged a former life as an architect and a stage designer, to serve as an OSS (forerunner of the CIA) operative and a major in the US Army. Landing in Bangkok at the end of the second world war, the urbane, soft spoken American was charmed by the cities vestiges of old-world character, its canals, floating markets and the royal history of Siam. That first visit captivated Thompson and he returned to the US hoping to convince his wife of the possibilities of a new life in Bangkok. Instead a divorce ensued and he returned to Bangkok a bachelor, thus beginning another phase in his fascinating life.

My first visit to the Jim Thompson House was in January 1989 and for nostalgia’s sake, I now allow myself a journey of discovery, and a little sentimentality on this trip. A silk-bound book, House On The Klong, is in my handbag. Purchased on that initial visit, a note on its inner sleeve reads… Merry Christmas to my traveling companion, Christmas 1989

It was penned after six months of backpacking with that traveling companion and six more of teaching English in Japan. We had fallen in love on our through journey Thailand, India, Nepal and China. Today, he’s my husband and I love that he’s the guy who ported my backpack far and wide. The travel companion with whom I’m lucky enough to still be discovering the world with.

Returning together to Bangkok with its bejewelled temple roof-lines, its hectic waterways, evocative streets and to Thompson’s home, brings floods of memories.

img_4026It was more soulful and quiet then. Without tour guides and with only occasional travellers, one had time to savour; the objects d’art, the finely carved doors, the priceless collections of Chinese blue and white, the delicate bencharong, five coloured porcelain.

Back then one could easily gaze out across the murky canal and hear the click, clack, click, clack of the silk looms in Bangkrau, the small village of Muslim weavers, long since swallowed up by the city.

The boardwalks of their Thai-style homes were lined with hanging skeins of freshly dyed strands of silk, their thinest of threads teased from silkworm cocoons. Not long after settling in Bangkok, Thompson began acquiring lengths of the weavers silk fashioned for sarongs; pasins for the ladies and pakomas for the men. Many of these weavers would come to produce silk for his company, bringing them wealth they could scarcely have imagined. Thompson would have no idea that in just a few years, the weavers would become his neighbours, just across the klong.

One of Bangkrau’s old Thai structures would provide the main part of Thompson’s home, the renowned drawing room. It was a charmed setting where movie stars, writers, politicians and the social elite were entertained by the generous businessman. It is fondly recalled that Thompson would re-tell the same fascinating stories night after night with the exuberance of a first-time story teller. Music by Thai performers floated towards the drawing room as an accompaniment.

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As we meander through the luxuriant garden, Lily points to the spirit house nestled in a corner, its precise location chosen by a Brahmin priest who specialized in such matters. It’s said that it took a full morning to locate the spot as a complicated set of astrological charts were consulted of the genealogy of the compound spirits, traced back 2000 years. Spirit houses are tiny abodes and replicas of Thai-style house or temples which must not fall under the shadow of the main house. For the Thais, there’s an innate believe that spirit houses offer a residence for the guardian spirit of the house and surroundings.

“There are four things the spirit house must have,” Lily enlightens us, “food, water, incense and flowers…oh, and a candle is nice too.” On this day, orange marigold garlands appease the spirits and please our cameras.

Jim Thompson would grow the ancient process of silk weaving and with other investors, form the Thai Silk Company in 1948. Almost instantly, its fine silk was sought-after worldwide. Before this, silk was considered old fashioned and something that your elderly relatives wore to a family wedding perhaps.

This would change as Jim Thompson’s silk soon graced photo spreads in magazines, exhibited in expensive stores and orders filled worldwide. The entrepreneur was seemingly indefatigable. Along with opening a company retail outlet and overseeing a thriving company, Thompson would also consult as a costume designer for movies such as The King and I, and Ben Hur…with specially designed silk of course.

Thompson had little free time, a recognized rebuttal after his disappearance which asserted that he had time to be a covert agent. But despite his frenetic schedule, he did find time to trek into the jungle, ideally emerging with an unknown species of orchid of which he was fond of; another rebuttal as to how someone knowledgable with the jungle could disappear in it.

Fittingly and perhaps in memory, the Jim Thompson House and gardens are fragrant with orchids poised in Chinese blue and white pots, with lush lily-padded ponds and replete with antiquties…I leave reluctantly.

The next day, I decide to visit Thompson’s first residence, The Oriental Hotel. On my way I turn onto a side street from what was once a worn elephant trail, New Road, the first proper road in Bangkok. It is the area where colonial-styled embassies congregated and antique shops opened for the travellers who began to trickle into the city at the turn-of-the-century.

I stop at a showroom, its sweeping decorative rooflines delightfully incongruous with its former use as a tractor repair shop. It stands defiant amongst modern buildings. As I admire antique handicrafts, I meet the second-generation shop owner. She patiently explains lipao, a beautiful dark climbing plant used for weaving and intriguingly, solves the mystery of why bamboo rice holders must to be smoked periodically. You’ll want to know it’s to prevent mites, of course. I then broach the topic of Jim Thompson.

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“Oh yes, we remember him,” she says. “I recall when I was a small girl he came to buy a valuable Thai headdress which was part of a matching pair, he owned the other one of course. It was put on my tiny head and very heavy.” I smile at the recollection and mention that I’m writing about the famed silk legend.

“What do you think happened to him?” The shopkeeper seems genuinely curious.

It is not a surprising question as three or four theories persist.

5-moonlight-bungalow-todayFirst and perhaps the most widely accepted is that Thompson innocently set out for a jungle walk from the Moonlight Bungalow where he was staying with friends in the Cameron Highlands in 1967. After an Easter church service followed by a picnic, the others had retired for an afternoon siesta. Thompson said he also planned to rest.

He didn’t however and a scrape of a lawn chair and the crunch of footsteps on gravel were heard sometime later. Thompson’s friends assumed he had decided to walk, which he was inclined to do at every opportunity. Despite weeks of full-scale searches, no trace of him or his body was, or has ever been found. Did he meet his demise accidentally plunging into a ravine or falling into a tiger trap set by local tribesmen?

A planned suicide theory persists, but is most often debunked, “Jim would never have done that to his friends and business,” a former colleague insists.

Other theories involve a kidnapping, a secret departure to start a life elsewhere (a few supposed sightings were reported in places like Tahiti), or a planned escape underground with his past OSS career having caught up with him.

What is known is that family, friends and colleagues waited tortuously for weeks and months in the hope that Thompson would stroll back into his beautiful home.

“I really don’t know,” I confess to the shop owner. “Even I’m a little haunted by it, I can only imagine the grief of his those that knew and loved him.”

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I take my leave and walk the short distance to the legendary Oriental Hotel, more imposing and glorious than ever. Commandeered by the Japanese during the war, the grand old Oriental was threadbare and worn-at-the-heels after liberation. American soldiers and liberated Dutch, British and Australian prisoners of war had also sought refuge in it’s once glamours surroundings.

Thompson, ever a designer, was serving as an unofficial political advisor to the American embassy at the time but couldn’t resist the charm of The Oriental. “We could make this a great hotel again,” he is quoted as saying to Germain Krull who became one of his partners. Thompson relished the opportunity to use his creative skills, yet the partnership lasted only a year with Thompson being squeezed out.

He continued however, to live in its revolving-door lifestyle for a year or two more, setting up his first silk shop. Framed prints pay homage to his time at The Oriental. In one print, Thompson’s parrot, Cocky, is perched on his shoulder in front of his home. It is said, the verbose parrot died of heartache when his master did not return.

I stay for a late lunch, taking in the elegant surroundings and the glimpses of Thai silk all around me; the furniture and cushions, the staff’s vibrant sarongs and jackets…patterns and splashes of smokey greys, oranges, emerald greens, tawny browns and of course siam pink. Jim Thompson’s colourful signature is everywhere.

This is still where the rich and famous gather and I notice some dressed for lunch as if for a cocktail party. Short silk dresses and sarongs mix with gentlemen in linen jackets and polished Gucci shoes. Thompson would be pleased. “He was a terribly elegant man, always dressed immaculately in Thai silk,” gushed one admiring lady.

Despite numerous affairs with married women, a few apparently more than ready to leave their husband, the bachelor never remarried. “He was rarely alone, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t lonely,” mused one of his confidants.

 

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I gaze out to the Chao Phraya river and watch the myriad boats ply the waters. Orange robed monks and tidy businessmen catch ferries, tourists alight at the hotel’s dock, long-tail boats speed past with their bright strands of fabric flapping from their prows. Elegant Thai roof tops have given way to modern buildings.

I remove the silk covered book from my bag and write of yesterday’s visit to the House…Bangkok, Feb. 25th, 2017, A return to the lovely and beguiling Jim Thompson House, yet this time with one of our sons. And what a joy to still be discovering and finding inspiration with my traveling companion...it’s been some twenty-eight years after all…

Penang’s shades of green and hues of blue…a mansion and Jimmy Choo

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There are a few unsent ‘postcards’ from Penang this past year. Having co-authored a book about its pioneers, both past and present, there is much to write. I could relate the fascinating history of Francis Light, who claimed the island for the East India Company in 1786, or the myriad settlers from near and far, especially the resourceful Chinese and the stalwart Southern Indians. There are Penang’s iconic shophouses, godowns and clan temples. Its diverse culture and heritage trades, the legendary food and the engaging street art. That and more will be revealed when the book is published. But for now, a few snippets from the Penang I’ve come to know and love…

 

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A photo of her hangs in the mansion’s dining room, her dress and hairstyle unusually simple for a person of her status. Tan Tay Po was 20 when she married the 70 year-old Cheong Fatt Tze. She would become his favourite wife – there were eight of them – and the Blue Mansion was Tan Tay’s splendid home.

Known as the ‘Rockefeller of the East’, Cheong Fatt Tze had homes (and wives) scattered throughout S.E. Asia, but the indigo-blue mansion in Penang was his preferred. Where he’d find his beloved wife number 7.

boutique-hotel-penang-island-blue-mansion-architecture-02-1-600x600-1I had been to the mansion earlier in the year, gathering information for the book project. Along with writers from the region, I had the good fortune to be invited to a candle-lit dinner in Indigo, the mansion’s elegant restaurant. Serendipity saw my place-card positioned across from Laurence Loh, the man who brought the mansion back to life; rescuing it from its dilapidated state and likely from demolition.

Laurence Loh is one of Malaysia’s esteemed architects and I followed many who have spoken to him over the years, BBC, CNN, Architectural publications and others. Laurence is understated yet passionate about his role as a conservation architect.

“Why take on such a daunting project?” I asked. “What motivated you to dedicate years to the restoration of a mansion? ” In fact a home now considered to be one of the finest restored mansions in the world.

Laurence admitted that he had not given the property much thought as he passed it daily as a youth on his way to school. Years later having returned home to Penang after time abroad, Laurence felt a strong pull towards the temple-like building. Along with partners, he and his wife Lin Lee would buy the property on Leith Street and transform the Chinese court-yard home to the enchanting splendour of its past – it would take 11 years of meticulous restoration.

That evening as we had dined, Laurence explained that developers had hovered in anticipation for the prized site when it came on the market. Conservation in 1989 was almost non-existent with no guidelines and little vision. The mansion lay in a state of decay and disregard with more than thirty tenant families inhabiting it. Motorbikes zoomed through the house and washing lines hung from gilded panels. Animal bones, droppings, feathers and rubbish littered the rooms.

Laurence told me modestly, “It just needed to be cleaned up and restored. There was an epiphany that this would take hold of our lives.” And he hinted that it was meant to be…that perhaps Cheong Fatt Tze had already chosen him as the rescuer.

I was curious if it was the love story of wife number 7, ‘the one he loved above all others,’ as Laurence had put it. Or perhaps it was the unique sense of scale, proportion and space with which the mansion had been designed. I sensed that it is a little of both. Laurence admitted that a keen sense of preserving the legacies of Penang’s forefathers, especially those of the Chinese settlers, had motivated him. “I’m very proud of my Chinese roots,” he explained, “it’s essential they’re preserved.”

The residence was originally completed in 1904 by Cheong Fatt Tze. Having arrived from China to Batavia in 1856 as a penniless 16 year-old, Cheong would come to epitomize South East Asia’s determined Chinese entrepreneurs – of which there were many. Cheong transcended from a carrier of river water to a one-man multinational conglomerate. Initially there was help from his merchant father-in-law, that of wife number 1, yet Cheong would go on to successfully deal in the commodities of the day: pepper, tin, rubber, tea and coffee, rice and opium. He would invest in banks, glassworks, textiles, cattle and a vineyard. He would start his own shipping line when refused first-class service on another. He was an extraordinary entrepreneur.

On a recent visit to Penang, I decide to spend an evening at the Mansion in one of its 18 restored guest rooms. I’d be untruthful if I didn’t confess that its history and spirt is felt within its storied walls. It’s not an uneasiness, but more of a tacit acknowledgement that you are just passing through…the home will always be Cheong Fatt Tze’s.

The next day, I’m invited to join a tour. The private rooms are roped off to the public and there’s a secret delight in having been in the inner sanctum of the mansion. Along with tourists from different countries, I learn that nothing was left to chance when the grand home was built. With its 5 inner courtyards, the centre wing was where business was conducted and were family was housed, perhaps one or all of the 3 wives and various concubines. This was often the norm for a man of Cheong’s social standing.

“Wives 3, 6 and 7 lived here. But if you were out of favour you could easily find yourself in the side wings or across the street in the servants quarters”, our guide reveals motioning to separate buildings across the street. Yet we’re told of Cheong’s great philanthropist tendencies, of his ease with both Asian traditions and of the Western World. We hear of his discerning sense of fashion from Mandarin outfits of fine silk, to top hats and tails.

Indeed the photos and other manifestations capture the essence of time, place and wealth. We see intricate Scottish ironworks (a must-have to affirm one’s wealth in the British empire), gilded decoration, priceless porcelain and Art Nouveau stained glass windows. But its the chien nien that intrigues me most.

Chien nien translates to cut-and-paste shard works, a laborious process whereby specially produced rice bowls are cut with pliers to provide shards of coloured porcelain. Lime putty is then used to form the shards into intricate patterns of men, women, animals and scenes depicting Chinese mythology and various Gods. Some 10,000 bowls, imported from China, were needed to restore the mansion’s chien nien – believed the most prolific on any private building outside of China.img_5060-1

As we gather in the central courtyard, we’re asked a question that I had heard previously from Laurence. “Do you feel the chi, the spirt?”

It is reference to the elaborate feng shui that Cheong Fatt Tze implemented in his home .

“This is the heart, here in the middle, where the greatest chi energy radiates,” our guide says motioning to a spot between two stone columns. “This precise point would have been selected by a feng shui master, the house grew from there.”

It seems very little was left to chance. Granite steps were added as ideally one must always step up when entering a Chinese home…it denotes promotion. The granite implies strength and stability. Golden coins were buried in auspicious corners to ensure continued wealth. The side wings of the home contain six rooms on each floor. The number six as it rhymes with ‘lok lok tai soon‘…smoothness for every dealing.

The Chinese believe that rain water brings wealth (farming, crops) and that nature’s wealth should be drawn inwards. Hence the mansion’s elaborate pipes and gutters to collect rainwater, emptying into the courtyards, backing up in loops, cooling both the floors and ceiling spaces. “The water can come in quickly but should flow out slowly, just like the Chinese ethos towards money.” This is conveyed to us with a chuckle, yet it is clearly to be taken seriously.

When we encounter a photo of the beloved wife number 7, we learn that Tan Tay was the daughter of a Penang goldsmith and the only wife mentioned in the tycoon’s will. When Cheong died in 1916, flags were lowered to half-mast throughout Asia by both British and Dutch authorities. His coffin was toured to Penang, Singapore and Hong Kong for farewells, before burial in his native China.

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And of the mansion? Cheong’s will stated that it was not to be sold until the death of he and Tan Tay’s son, only 2 at the time of his father’s death. When he died in 1989, the last daughter-in-law would fall short of money and resort to leasing the mansion’s once grand rooms, contributing to the dilapidated state Laurence Loh would find the mansion.

As the tour finishes, I recall something Laurence had shared that with me. “Cheong Fatt Tze had wanted nine generations to live in this home. He wanted it to be enjoyed by many.”

Thanks to the vision of a passionate architect, that is happily the case…

*The Blue Mansion is properly known as the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

 

A connection with Jimmy Choo…

img_3173I find myself on ‘hallowed’ ground…that is, if one is both a lover of shoes and familiar with Jimmy Choo. His story began in Penang, a local boy who shared his roots with the very man I’m speaking with, Mr. Wong Heng Mun.

I’m at Hong Kong Shoes on Kimberley Street and have decided to have a pair of shoes made by Mr. Wong and his team of cobblers.

There are three skilled artisans busy today in the long, narrow shophouse. One shoemaker is stitching and another cutting strips of leather with scissors as large as a size- 13 shoe. Mr. Wong minds the front of the shop. He not only knows a thing or two about shoes, he apprenticed alongside Penang’s runaway success story…Jimmy Choo. Like Mr. Wong, Mr. Choo also came from a family of shoemakers.

“Jimmy was about 15 or so, a little older than me when we apprenticed. It was my father that taught us.” Mr. Wong’s father, Wong Sam Chai, was Penang’s esteemed master cobbler for some 60 years.

This is not the original location of the shop but still, it’s become a bit of a mecca for shoe lovers visiting Penang. The shop is certainly not as salubrious as a Jimmy Choo. This is more of an ‘organized chaos’ with shoe mouldings, scraps of leather and shoe samples crammed onto shelves and arrayed on the floor. Proudly displayed magazine and newspaper clippings of the Choo connection decorate the walls. The workshop is stuffed with tools of the trade: threads on bobbins, glue for soles of leather, hammers and heels, and a ‘museum piece’ Singer – timeless and trusty.

Mr. Wong is kind enough to lead me up the worn treads of narrow stairs to the second floor. Shoe moulds as far as the eye can see. Wooden and plastic – shades of greens, hues of blues and wood polished smooth by expert hands, sizes and shapes for all.

Mr. Wong tells me that more than 200 pairs of shoes are handcrafted every month for clients. “Some locals but many foreigners.”

img_5285Back in the workshop, I notice the nonya shoe that is in the works. Its delicate glass beads have been painstakingly stitched into a pattern onto fabric, and is now being crafted into a sandal or perhaps a slipper.

Traditionally this was a pastime expertised by Malay ladies. Beaded slippers complimented their colourful sarongs and lavish kebayas, their tight fitting embroidered blouses.

I’m told that the craft of stitching the coloured glass beads was even a skill coveted for marriage. It seems that presenting a pair of hand-stitched men’s slippers was effective for impressing a future husband. Wonderful examples of nonya slippers and all else pertaining to their refined and opulent culture can be enjoyed at the Pinang Peranakan Mansion.

Today, pieces of the beaded designs are still created and sold to Hong Kong Shoes, both for personal orders or otherwise. “Many foreigners also like these,” Mr. Wong assures me as we admire the intricate samples. In somewhat of a paradox he shows off a massive shoe mould, though I don’t catch the name of who it was a match for – surely it was an extremely tall basketball player.

I’m just a normal size 6.5 and I tell Mr. Wong that I’d like my sandals copied please, “though just a little more tight fitting.” I dig my worn footwear from my bag. They’ve traipsed over the cobblestones of Rome, through the narrow lanes of Cintra and the back streets of Miri…and many others in between. I surprise myself by choosing roughly the same colours of leather…actually I think I’m just a little overwhelmed with the vast array of samples.

Mr. Wong opens a notebook, asks me to take off my shoes and instructs me to stand on the blank paper. He traces my feet, jots down some notes and confirms my order on a small notebook…order 8565. I pay, then he bundles up the note paper, my beloved sandals and plunks them in a plastic bag. Gosh, I hope I see those again, I can’t help but fret.

“How long Sir, until they’re ready?

“About two, three months,” he tells me with a confident smile.

“Lovely, my friend will pick them up for me,” I say, giving a knowing glance to a good friend who spends much of her time here. I already envision my next visit, my shiny pair of sandals awaiting me.

“No worry,” Mr Wong assures me,” we make many, many shoes.”

I can’t resist asking, “Who is the most famous client you’ve had?”

“Oh, Hollywood famous,”he says matter-of-factly. He’s most definitely not revealing any secrets.

 

And may I share a few of my ‘preferred’ in Penang…

Hotel…Campbell House on Lebuh Campbell

Restaurants…Seven Terraces, Il Bacaro, China House

Museums…Pinang Peranakan Mansion, the house of Sun Yat Sen (father of modern    China), Penang State Museum, Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

Things to do…Enjoy street food, especially Char Kuey Teow. Trishaw to discover the many Street Art installations. Take in the view at the peak of Penang Hill and visit The Habitat, Penang Hill. Wander along Beach Street, Armenian Street, Love Street and all in between. Venture out to the Spice Gardens. Have tea at the Eastern and Oriental Hotel. Take in live music at China House. Visit the many temples and mosques. Stroll the clan jetties. Don’t miss Occupy Beach Street early Sunday mornings. Arrange your visit to coincide with the brilliant George Town Festival…

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Of Magical Mysore…of farewells and re-attachments…

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img_0771Time with family and friends recently in Canada was wonderful – home in the true sense. However my other life in India called.

The world may be my oyster, yet there is a downside to living on different continents. Once back in Bangalore, reality quickly set in.

After four months of a ‘monastic’ existence whilst consumed by a book project and another few months away, I returned to Bangalore feeling a stranger and out of touch. I needed to fit back into a social life.

As in the past with other adopted countries, I trust a time will come when it feels more effortless…

Perhaps it wasn’t surprising that my first reaction was not to yield to my surroundings, but rather to explore. “Let’s see more of India,” I implored my husband. “I need to take advantage of actually being here.”

The next morning we pack our bags and head to ‘Majestic’, the city railway station. A little more than two hours later, the train delivers us to the city of Mysore. The saying goes that you haven’t truly experienced South India unless you’ve journeyed here. Our first hours in the city hint that this might be so. The streets feel different from Bangalore, but in a way that was strikingly familiar. I am transported back to those enchantingly simpler times we had experienced backpacking in India, over a quarter of a century ago.

img_0819-1Mysore’s streets and broad tree-line boulevards, are lively but less urgent than Bangalore’s. Stately buildings exude charm and a sense of place and history. All reminiscent of our India of old – a fondly re-discovered treasure.

The city is redolent with history, defined by the regal Maharajahs of the Wodeyar dynasty and by the infamous Tipu Sultan. Known as the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu was India’s freedom fighter and revered for resisting the onslaught of British imperialists. His state succumbed only after their fourth campaign. The Sultan is also celebrated as the pioneer of rocket warfare…but more of Tipu Sultan later.

We stay at a former residence built by the Maharajah of Mysore himself, a cozy retreat for his European guests. The Royal Orchid Metrople is that touch of old world charm with its tiled verandahs of potted palms, intricate lattice work and inviting wicker chairs. I enquire who the lady is, proper in a lacy Victorian collar and hairstyle of the 1920’s. Her portrait is handsomely framed at the foot of the lobby’s spiral staircase. With a hint of reverence, the concierge confirms, “We’re quite certain she was our first guest.”img_0765

I conjour a day in the life of this European visitor. I imagine her penning a letter at the writing desk in the Maharani suite – the very one we were staying in – carefully folding the parchment before sliding it into an envelope. Perhaps the correspondence describes a social gathering of visiting dignitaries, the unexpected thrill of an elephant ride or the purchase of fine Mysorean silk. Perhaps the letter addresses the paradox of the writer’s privileged colonial lifestyle, in contrast to the struggles and injustices of many locals. I would tell the writer that as foreigners in India, we try still today to reconcile the inequalities that surround us. We embrace the culture and the heritage, but often grapple with the poverty of the underprivileged.

img_0768Our guest from the 1920’s makes her way down the spiral staircase to the porticoed entrance. She dons a sun hat and the doorman, splendidly attired in the Mysore fashion of the day, bids her ‘Good afternoon’. He summons a carriage and the visitor is conveyed to the Maharaja’s Palace. As the palace draws into view, she is instantly captivated.

As it was then, so is it now. Mysore Palace remains one of India’s grandest royal buildings. The most visited tourist attraction in India after the Taj Mahal, six million visitors a year are transported back to an era of unparalleled grandeur. This is the seat of the Mysore royal family, where the most beloved of Maharajahs, Krishna Raja Wodeyar IV was installed in 1902.

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The extensive palace grounds are lush, shadowed with rain trees and dotted with sacred temples. I’m asked to join groups for photographs and willingly oblige. It is clear we are much more of a curiosity here than in Bangalore. Small children greet me with smiles and a, “Hi Auntie, where are you from?”

We join the multitudes and deposit our footwear before entering the inner palace. Photos inside are not allowed, but then they could not do it justice.

The ‘Indo-Saracenic’ architecture of the Mysore Palace is a mix of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput and Gothic…and it is breathtaking. With soaring rooflines, mosaic floors, doors of inlaid ivory and displays of gold such as the elephant howdahs, the palace is designed to inspire awe. The durbar (the ceremonial meeting hall of the royal court) is magnificent in both scale and opulence, emphatically projecting the power of the Wodeyars who ruled for almost six centuries.

The much beloved Krishna Raja Wadiyar IV was the 24th Maharaja, ruling from 1895 to 1940. Focused on education, hospitals and religious sites, he worked to alleviate poverty and improve public health and industry. The forward-thinking Raja also built Asia’s first hydro electro project. Nearby Bangalore benefited and was the first city in India to have electric street lights in 1905.

Indeed the strides made during the Raja’s reign, inclined the revered Mahatma Gandhi to remark that the Maharaja was truly a Raja Rishi, a saintly king. His princely state of Mysore was acknowledged to be ‘the best administered state in the world’. But of course the Maharajahs of Mysore (as with other princely states) were also known for their excesses. Doing a Mysore was a phrase coined by Rolls-Royce executives in the 1920’s, code for the purchase of ‘Rollers’ in batches of seven…as the Maharaja Krishna was inclined to do!

The palace is a trove of treasures. Finely detailed wall paintings portray scenes from the Wodeyar’s stately processions and lavish lifestyle. Depicted in intricate detail, the Maharajahs are adorned in the finest Mysore silk and richly bejewelled. They sit atop caparisoned elephants, under the shade of a howdah or upon golden thrones. And they are rich beyond compare. At the time of his death in 1940 at his summer palace in Bangalore, Krishna Raja Wodeyar was one of the world’s wealthiest men.

We emerge from the palace into the expansive grounds. Hawkers gently tickle drums to entice. Cheap bangles, sandalwood carvings, incense and oils are offered – Mysore’s reputation for sandalwood and the finest of silks is undisputed. Brightly painted carriages and their listless ponies invite; more modest echoes of the elaborate carriages that once graced the the streets of Mysore.

img_0918-1The next morning a ‘carriage’ of a different kind awaits us. The environs of Mysore beg to be explored and we jump into a classic ’66 Mahindra Jeep. It’s rugged and basic, it’s a beauty.

Faizan from Royal Mysore Walks greets us affably and promises we’ll enjoy the tour. “You can ask me anything at all,” he says, “but just call me Fez, it’s easier.” As a former tour guide myself, I easily identify with him.

Fez is knowledgeable, engaging and gently puts us through the odd history quiz…perfect!

The drive takes us to the ramparts of Tipu Sultan’s fort in Sriangapatnam, an island formed between two channels of the Cauvery River. Hyder Ali, Tipu Sultan’s father, had usurped the throne, then expanded the Mysore kingdom but would be forced, with his son, to defend it in four Anglo Mysorean wars. Fought over three decades, the final and decisive campaign by the British East India Company was in 1799. Even now more than 200 years later, the battlements seem impenetrable and might have remained that way but for one man.

I envision the battle as Fez paints the scene with a wave of his hand. “There was a traitor” he tells us. “His name was Mir Sadiq and so despised is he even today that people throw stones at his tomb.” The general betrayed the Sultan by colluding with the British, opening a breach in the walls that lead to the defeat of the Mysorean troops and to the death of Tipu Sultan, the only Indian king to die on a battlefield.  At a nearby palace, we see the face of Mir Sadiq actually smudged out in paintings, more evidence of the contempt with which he is still held. On the other hand, Tipu Sultan is a national hero; his reputation for brutality is a story for another time.

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That British victory yielded the richest haul of war-spoils from any battle they ever fought. I’m fascinated by this remarkable period, indeed of all Indian history…the Moguls, Maharajahs and the British rule which is both maligned and embraced here. As we leave the ramparts, a simple wooden bullock cart trundles past. Two beasts of burden pull the sturdy cart along a time-worn trail at the river’s edge – a scene unchanged for centuries.

Our Jeep rolls past sugar cane fields, silk worm farms and stands of eucalyptus trees, the sights and smells rushing through the open vehicle are colourful, raw and exhilarating. We turn off the highway and thread across an ancient narrow bridge over a gently flowing river. The Raja Ghat extends either side of us, scenes of ritual bathing and high-spirited play combine; scenes that evoke moments of clarity…I am in India!

img_0860On the side of the stepped ghat, under an ancient stone pavilion, a ceremony unfolds. A young man, bereaved of his father, is in the midst of a solemn ritual. Guided by a brahmin priest, he recites prayers as water is rhythmically dabbed on his wrist. His head is shaved as tradition demands. We listen to the priest’s intonation, a soothing, flowing mantra. We offer condolences to the women witnessing the ceremony, sensing that we have intruded on their grief. Yet they acknowledge us with a nod as we quietly take our leave. On the upper ghat another brahmin priest invites us into his vividly painted temple to witness the ritual about to commence. Inside, the centuries-old place of worship is cool and somber. We sit cross-legged on the stone floor opposite a priest flanked by two men, one an assistant, the other the supplicant.

img_0862The priest leads them in prayer for the well-being of the family. The father takes his cues from the brahmin as his adult son and wife look on. Sanskrit mantras mix with camphor wafting through the still air. Rice and turmeric are sprinkled, offerings in a timeless ritual.

Hands pressed together, and mouthing a ‘namaskara’ to the mother, we again take leave. She returns my gaze, her eyes confirming that our glimpse into this sacred family tradition was welcomed. I am moved by the openness of Hindus, their joy of sharing the living traditions.

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In the mid-afternoon sun, more scenes of communal prayer and family togetherness play out on the ghats. As children splash in shallow pools, the rhythmic slap of laundry beats out a languid tempo on the rocks. Ever-present, sacred cows luxuriate as they munch vegetables in the shade of a mango tree.

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On our return to Mysore, Fez points out stops that we will have to plan for our next visit; sandalwood incense makers, silk farms and even traditional painters of those iconic bullock carts that seem the very essence of rural India. The jeep tour with Fez has offered us insights we would not have had the privilege of seeing.

img_0913South India lives up to its reputation of friendliness, of mystic sights and ancient traditions. This is why, I remind myself. Why this peripatetic life with its farewells and re-attachments, its solitudes and contemplative transition, is worth it. These are the moments to treasure.

I get my bearings back over the next few days and resolve to be contented. I attend a number of social events through the week and feel a little more connected. “Are you free this weekend?” I’m asked.

“I’m afraid not,” I say, “I’m off again.”

As I pen this, my suitcases await at the door for this evening’s flight; it is Singapore and  Australia for the next ten days. Without any children here, I can freely accompany my husband on a business trip. It’s true…I have nothing to complain about…

The Grand Bazaar in Pondicherry and a train passage to old ‘Madras’…part two

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“Bonjour Mademoiselle, ca va?, asks the shallot seller. His smile is radiant, his demeanour peaceful. He shifts and shakes his shallots in a slim basket, removing their skins and depositing them lighter and more saleable into a substantial basket. The shallots are the sellers only commodity this Sunday morning at Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

If you’ve watched the movie Life of Pi, you’ve briefly glimpsed Pondicherry. The narrative begins here, the film sweeps through parts of the old town including the expansive bazaar. Founded in 1827, it’s about the size of a football pitch, and we had been told to not miss it.

Pondicherry’s rich heritage is revealed here; the sellers, the produce, the decorative flower garlands created and sold for cultural and religious occasions. As I experienced in Kazakhstan, a market is where the fabric of a city reveals itself. A place where the murmur of regional languages, the aroma of exotic spices and unfamiliar produce beguiles you. An experience where the cultural thread that stitches a community together heightens the senses – market places are a traveller’s touchstone.

The shallot seller is proud to be of French ancestry, common in this once French port on India’s South East Coast. Pointing to his talika spread across his forehead, he makes it clear that his devotion is for Shiva. The broad stripes, painted or smeared from ash, are worn proudly on followers of the Hindu deity. The seller motions to his stripes and white dot, “Shiva is love,” he tells us in dreamy affirmation. I marvel that he sits, sifting his produce and smiling contentedly, almost in the pathway of the bustling bazaar…in complete serenity.

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Most sellers have a stall, a perch, a ‘hole in the wall’ from which to sell. Many have their own small puja (shrine), a smattering of religious calendars and a hefty ancient scale beside them. Some have a speciality item, others sell it all. Red for apples, tomatoes and luscious pomegranates. Green for coriander and limes, curry and betel leaves, peas and lady fingers…you know them as okra. Purplish eggplant IMG_1117and orange for carrots and mangos.

In Southern India bananas straddle both the yellow and green spectrum, their bunches often sold on thick stalks…ready to be steamed, fried or roasted. Banana leaves are vital as ‘plates and platters’. Practical yet with a side benefit – it’s believed that antioxidants are transferred to the curries and masalas from their thick, waxy leaves.

I feel I’m in the way as burlap sacks of beans, groundnuts and garlic are heaved high on shoulders and humphed past me. I’m cautious underfoot for squashed oranges and smashed corn husks, for the odd rat that darts in and out. I dig my hands into stuffed, rolled down sacks, trickling and rolling rice, myriad beans and lentils through my fingers.

I’m thankful for sincere smiles as I make my way through the crowded lanes, haggling and chatter filling their space. My openness and curiousity is most often met with warmth and returned smiles. The odd person reminds me they are busy trading and understandably, my camera isn’t welcomed by all.

The volume of produce is staggering, it simply has to be sold. This is where the people of India procure their food, not at sterile well-lit grocery stores, but at bazaars, at markets, at roadside vendors.

As colourful as the canvas of fruits and vegetables is, the cultural complexities of the flower and petal stalls are even more intoxicating. These petals of jasmine and lotus, chrysanthemum and oleander, roses and marigolds, are transformed into the dainty, the neck-sized and a variety of shaped garlands for welcoming and worshiping. One might even wrap a garland around an auto rickshaw…yes, they can be bought by the meter. They can reach seemingly gargantuan proportions and be elaborately decorated; they have to be seen to be believed.

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Flower petals are bought cheaply by the bag, both for wholesale and for personal use. It isn’t uncommon to come across ladies sitting on street sides conversing and threading, petals slowly forming a garland. Yet most garlands are threaded at a maker’s stall.

I meet Chandra and his two sons. Their hands are swift and supple as they thread jasmine and roses. “It’s a family business,” I’m told, “my sons are following my foot-steps.” Small businesses such as Chandra’s are the backbone of India. The garland business is prolific.

img_4516They are offered for worship, draped around doorways at a housewarming, a new motorbike or auto rickshaw may be blessed with a garland, a bride and groom exchange them three times during a wedding. They are also woven into a lady’s plaited hair, especially here in Southern India.

I’m told that each Hindu deity has a unique garland: Goddess Lalitha prefers hibiscus, Lord Vishnu wears tulasi leaves, Lord Subrahmanyan likes to be draped in jasmine, whereas Mahalakshmi likes red lotus. Ancient kings appointed keepers whose only role was to tend flower gardens – cultivating precious petals for daily devotions, never to be sold. It is also rumoured that these royal gardeners did not marry.

When I wander to a tucked away lane and find garlands as tall as myself, it crosses my mind to take one to our hotel as a kind gesture. I realize it’s prudent to ask if there’s a special meaning attached to the over-sized creations, “Oh yes madam, those are for funeral!”

The rules for the flower pluckers, the sattarars, is fascinating…and yes I use the word ‘plucker’. In India, the word pluck is always used in reference to flowers. You do not pick flowers –one plucks flowers. It seems the rules for sattarars are rather specific, whether it be for the plucking or the making of garlands.

Flowers should be plucked in the early morning, ideally after having bathed. The flowers or petals should not have been smelled by anyone. They most definitely should not be used if they’ve fallen on earth or dirt. Namajapam or the repetition of holy names should be done while plucking.

While constructing garlands, the petals and other material such as banana tree fiber used as the base, should be kept on a table. Ideally above hip level – a flower for God should not touch the feet. I note that Chandra and his sons were building their garlands above the hip, their creations then displayed above them. I realize I had lifted one gently to my nose to appreciate its fragrance. Did I unwittingly break a rule, or does that only pertain to the loose petals?

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It seems the fragrance of jasmine, the most cherished scent of Indian flowers, is meant to be enjoyed. When their delicate ivory buds are threaded into gajras, not only do they decorate women’s hair, it is believed the scent reduces anxiety, emitting peace and happiness. Ancient Hindu art, chiseled some 2000 years ago, depict goddesses with delicate gajras enhancing their thick locks. And so it is, still today.

I stand close to ladies at a temple and the scent of jasmine lingers. More of those exotic scents and vivid colours that this traveller soaks up. I breath it in and cherish the scene. The images that await me in the coming day, further affirms my love of travel.

We journey back to old Madras (Chennai) by train. Not in first class or in air-conditioning, just the type of train that millions of passengers travel in daily. The kind of train with only bars on the windows and rickety old fans whirling above simple seats. The kind of train that costs less than a dollar to ride 160 kilometres or so.

We are the only foreigners, first aboard, and firmly planted next to the windows. This is important as the bench-seat for 4 will fill to 5, 6, maybe 7 by journey’s end.

img_1418-2Barely ten minutes out of Pondicherry a time capsule awaits. As the clatter of the wheels settle to a rhythmic, soothing pattern, the city gives way to a beautiful patchwork; palms, rice, vegetables and flowers. From these fields come the produce, the bounty found  in Pondicherry’s Grand Bazaar.

Against this verdant backdrop, ladies swish in bright saris as they tend crops and herd flocks. Small villages – simple buildings roofed with palm-fronds and tin, bullock carts trundling down narrow lanes – an old age farming culture stocking India’s bazaars and markets.

The train halts or passes through lyrically named towns like Valavanur, Vullupuram and Vikravandi Mailam. At Tindivanam it gets busy, the 4 seater long-bench is now a 6. A sinewy fellow in a vivid orange lungi asks to borrow the Times of India, a rural family boards dressed in fresh linen and shiny saris – their young daughter toys with a new cell phone, a young professional strikes up a conversation. Might he get a photo for Facebook with our son?

The train screeches to rest at platforms, sellers jump on, plying the aisles…roasted groundnuts, guavas, biscuits and papers. The chai sellers need only to latch their aluminum urns onto a window bar. Tiny cups of sweet chai pass through the gaps; it’s common to treat your fellow passenger. As passengers disembark there are nods all around, perhaps a handshake, we’ve become acquaintances. “Very happy you are traveling the train,” they say.

Temples peek over groves of palm and trees of mango, children splash naked in ponds, water buffalos laze close by. At Melmarmuvathur, dusk settles in and the sultry evening finally offers a cooling breeze.

And the light casts different hues. Green fields deepen to emerald and hills become shadowy. The smell of the sultry air changes.

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Our young friend Anand shakes our hand warmly. The train has rolled into his station, he’s home to visit his recently widowed mother. We regret that we hadn’t exchanged contact details.

The scene changes at Chengalpattu Junction, on the outskirts of Madras. It’s now 7:00 p.m. and crowds of young professionals have left work in suburban offices and await their train into the city.

The fields give way completely to a rainbow of tall skinny homes, to the crush of the city. A milky, full moon dances over the lights of Madras. I close my trusty Moleskin and pack away my travel notes…the images dance vividly in my mind’s eye.

Pondicherry, the once French India…part one

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Colonial architecture in the French quarter

From the time we arrived in Bangalore, we’ve been told to visit Pondicherry. “You’ll feel like you aren’t quite in India,” people say with a twinkle in their eye.

We decide to fly to Chennai (or the once and more romantic sounding Madras), then take a leisurely drive south to Pondicherry. With our driver forewarned to be sensible (well aware of the customary incautious driving), we make our way down the Coromandel Coast of the Bay of Bengal.

The mass of Madras gives way to villages and verdant fields stretched along a narrow highway – squeezed with villagers on foot and bike, goats, cows and bullock carts, and then the stream of traffic. We’re all vying for space against the ‘green monsters’ as I’ve dubbed the massive hulks of metal, painted a shade of that pesky green. There are herds of them, public buses that transport millions of people daily throughout India. They stampede the pavement like rampaging elephants, horns trumpeting and wheels trampling – commanding the road as they overtake dangerously, swerving out and back into their lane with only a fraction of space to spare. Your life flashes before your eyes, bend after bend. By the time we arrive in Pondicherry, this passenger is a wreck.

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The welcoming kolam

“I’ll have a gin tonic please,” I plead as we sink into deep wicker chairs at Maison Perumal. We’ve been welcomed with garlands of jasmine and fresh lime sodas in the three-storied courtyard…ironically stuffed with pots the same shade as the ‘monsters.’ “I’m just happy we’re alive,” our son quips as he sips on his lime soda.

Jaison, our host at the Maison explains the intricacies of transportation in India. “The buses are on a tight schedule, they have to move ma’am. Maybe take the train back…that’s the only way to see India.” I make a note to check the train schedule.

Pondicherry, the French interpretation of Puducherry (meaning new settlement), has two distinctive quarters in the old city, the Tamil and the French. We’re in the Tamil quarter, from the predominant population originating in Tamil Nadu, the state that surrounds the Union Territory of Pondicherry. This was once referred to as ‘black town’, settled alongside the French quarter in the late 1600’s.

The Tamil quarter developed around its five Hindu temples, countless small pagodas and the Grand Bazaar. This is where the highest caste of Hindus the Brahmins lived, as well as the businessmen who controlled large-scale trade, the Chettiars. Maison Perumal had been the home of a prominent Chettiar family, the Sunder Iyers, for more than one-hundred years. The family were bankers and cotton traders, and lived in a multi-generational fashion – framed sepia photos line the corridors and hint at their privileged lifestyle.

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Sam John at Maison Perumal

Sam John, the hotel’s manager greets us, meticulous in starched white cotton. He points out the finely carved pillars that elegantly frame the courtyard. “This family traded in Burma and so returned with Burmese teak. This is a large courtyard, sixteen pillars, fitting for a prominent Chettair mansion.”

It seems we’re sitting in the men’s courtyard, the women’s is the smaller one, close to the kitchen. They share similiar architectural features; red-oxide tile flooring for colour and open air wells for ventilation and light. In fact the age-old concept according to the Vaastu Shasta (the traditional Hindu system of architecture), each house must posses an open courtyard to honour the auspicious link between the five elements – the courtyard also bustled with family gatherings.

I ask Sam about the stone bench at the entrance of Maison Perumal, having noticed that the Tamil homes have a street verandah with a lean-to-roof over wooden posts, and a masonry bench tucked in the corner. “This is called the thalvaram. A shady place to give protection for the passers-by and to protect the building from the sun and rain. The benches are thinnai, used to welcome strangers or to chat with neighbours. We like sitting cross-legged on the benches, keeps us nimble, like yoga,” he says.

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Sunday morning thinnai

We experience the concept of thinnai first hand as we’re invited onto a verandah as we pass by a quaint bungalow early Sunday morning. Two sister-in-laws are chatting as they shell peas for mid-day lunch. Like us, one of the ladies is also visiting from Bangalore. We comment on the chaotic streets that we’ve escaped from – we breath in the healthier air of  peaceful Pondicherry.

Sam John mentioned the importance of retaining this low-key way of life when we had spoken. He was passionate in explaining that Maison Perumal is a cgh earth experience hotel, they have a clear ethos.

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A tri-shaw tour

The chain of hotels has non-negotiable principles of preserving the nation by honouring local heritage. Cgh hotels are restored to preserve their heritage and architecture. Sam had told us, “Respecting the past, all the hotels have adopted the local culture and way of life, paying homage to traditional modes of living, nature, architecture and heritage.”

At Maison Perumal, we ‘feel’ the ethos as we appreciate the attention to detail in the restored building, its second story evoking the French style with stained glass windows and authentic furnishings. This was often the case in a Tamil home, the marrying of the Tamil and French style. We enjoy local cuisine and an opportunity to tour on a trishaw. “We’ve engaged locals to do these tours,” Sam said proudly, “it helps support the community.”

One morning during our stay, a kolam is being chalked in the courtyard as we make our way to breakfast. It is a morning ritual for the Tamils (as in other parts of India) to create a design in the courtyard and at the home’s entrance. They are delightful either in their simplicity or in more embellished artistic forms, although decoration is not the main purpose of a kolam. Traditionally drawn from rice flour it welcomes people, small creatures and even deities, not least of whom is Lakshmi, the Goddess of prosperity and wealth.

The patterns range from geometric drawings around a matrix of dots, to free form art work and closed shapes. Folklore has evolved to caution that the lines must be completed so as to symbolically prevent evil spirits from entering the inside of the shapes, and thus from the inside of the home.

Such ancient traditions such as these are still a part of every day life for the people in the Hindu enclave. The French quarter gave an entirely different sense of time and place. Puducherry, or Pondy, as the locals now refer to their city, has been a base for trading since the early 1520. Of the Europeans, the Portuguese were here first to trade in textiles; the Dutch and the Danes followed. But it was the French who rebuilt a prominent fortified town and thriving port of call, despite the British (in nearby Madras) razing most of it to the ground in 1761. The Treaty of Paris returned Puducherry to the French in 1763 and they quickly rebuilt. Today its unique charm captures the romance of those early Colonial days; of retreating  from the punishing heat on breezy verandahs after a day of trading those sought after commodities: cotton, indigo, cinnamon and cardamon, coffee, mehe pepper, cowrie shells and Chinese porcelain. They all passed through the warehouses before journeying, east to west.

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The respite of a colonnade portico

The French quarter, home to the French and other Europeans was dubbed ‘white’ town. Their homes and public buildings mirrored the upper-class French style. Imposing gates hinted at the prosperity of the owner ensconced behind high compound walls. They hid lush garden courts and verandahs decorated with exquisite scrolls and floral motifs. Ideally facing the sea breeze, the colonnaded porticos were essential to day to day life as the settlers coped with the extreme heat and humidity –entertaining staved off the sometimes interminable boredom of life in the Indies.

Women of the day visited, gossiped, read and wrote short stories. Tales were told of ‘Indian culture’ as they perceived it to be. Their interaction with the ‘natives’ was restricted to a minimum – mostly to their staff of butlers, gardeners and servants, and punkah wallahs who ensured a constant flutter of air from delicate wicker fans. Every good home also employed palanquin carriers who transported their sir and madam in improbable style. The large box-like contraptions with shuttered windows and a long pole on either end, (handles for the carriers) allowed residents in the French quarter to ‘hide away’ as they made their way through the streets.

We take a tour with Ashok who works with INTACH, the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. Their mission is to preserve heritage buildings, save them from further dilapidation, breathe life back into their storied pasts. We’re told the old town is in danger of losing its unique charm if more treasured buildings cannot be rescued. Along with the beautifully restored we see once-proud homes, shops and government buildings, lingering and neglected in a slow, sad demise.

Ashok leads us to one of the loveliest of the restored mansions. As we enter through the gate to the imposing, white and lemon-hued mansion, there is complete silence despite the presence of countless women. They sit embroidering, the chirp of birds and the rustle of palm leaves their gentle sound track. “This was the French Trading Company office and then the Governor’s mansion,” Ashok tells us. “Now run by the Sisters of Cluny Church, they train and help underprivileged ladies through their embroidery work.” It is an uplifting setting and a noble venture – an example of the practical possibilities of preserving the legacies of bygone years.

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Embroiders at work in a peaceful setting

Deciding to stay a few evenings in the French quarter, we meet a lovely young Parisian. Chandra, along with her cousin Ryan, is the acting proprietor of La Closerie, Bay of Bengal. The guest house is a combination of an old French home and a new annex that melds together seamlessly.

“My mother bought the colonial home about twenty years ago. It was restored and extended four years ago, I’m here to manage it for a year,” Chandra says. She mentions the contrasting pace between Pondy and Paris. “There are quite a few of us French here with Indian roots. It’s a vibrant community, a unique opportunity to spend a year here.”

Chandra is one of many French men and women we meet. When the French left Pondy in 1954, many residents retained Indian citizenship and property, even those who chose to return to France. While some descendants benefited from inherited homes, others found it to be a burden if unable to meet the cost of refurbishment.

Jawaharlal Nehru himself, who in 1947 became the first Prime Minister of Independent India, made it a point to preserve the unique heritage of this once French India. “I want Pondicherry to remain a window of culture.” And indeed through the efforts of INTACH and other committed bodies like cgh, Pondicherry is trying to do just that.

We take a late afternoon stroll along the sea front, joining the locals taking in the salubrious sea air. People linger in groups conversing, or ponder alone matching the brooding sky over the Bay of Bengal. The weathered lighthouse looms over the crowds, once more useful when it guided trading ships into these shores. Sculptured pillars from an ancient fort stand guard over a statue of the revered Ghandi – a statue of Nehru stands close by. The scene is much changed since boatmen and tall ships crowded the jetty, and the more somber history of Pondicherry’s colonial days unfolded– the shipping of thousands of Tamils as ‘coolies’ or indentured workers and slaves.

But for now we leave the sultry beachside with its pounding waves, with its people – French, Tamil and Muslim living harmoniously, where time stands still yet moves cautiously forward. One last time, we cross back into the Tamil quarter…there’s the Grand Bazaar to visit and that train passage to reserve back to old Madras.

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A vibrant Indian neighbourhood…under the shade of a rain tree

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The neighbourhood fruit vendor

The lyrical calls of the wallah echo through our tiny street…fruit, vegetables, papers, knife sharpening, and the call for tea…chai! These vendors, with well-stocked wooden carts and bicycles, are still part of the fabric in this traditional neighbourhood.

Our move was only days old when I first heard this chant. As I lingered with my Sunday morning coffee, I heard the rising pitch of a female voice. The words were unclear yet the entreaty to ‘come buy’ unmistakeable.

“That must be a wallah!,” I said expectantly, rushing to gaze down to the leafy street.

The vendor was wearing a vivid red sari, contrasting her laden, deep green cart. Hurrying to the street, I meet my new fruit seller, Munglora. She greets me by removing the tiny red dot, a bindi, from her forehead and placing it just between my eyes, “welcome,” she says with an engaging laugh. Despite the language barrier, I can tell she’s a character.

I gather strawberries, melons and pomegranates for ‘a song’, yet discover that like an excited child, I had only rushed down with a few rupees in my hand. “Ok, ok,” says Munglora and jots down the amount owing in a faithful ledger. She’ll be sure to see me next Sunday this way.

A few of the neighbours make their way from their aging villas. Their friendliness is matched by their curiosity about this new couple on the street, “Where are you from and do you have children,” they want to know. It seems a little more acceptable that we’re so far away from our sons when I tell them they are studying and that by co-incidence, our landlord’s son went to the same university/college as I had in Canada. “What a small world,” we all agree pleasantly.

Munglora has parked her cart near the tall school gate at the end of the street and the impeccably uniformed school guard soon introduces himself. It’s obvious he takes pride in his long service to the Bishop Cotton Boy’s School. Built in the 1860’s, it’s one of the oldest institutions in Bengaluru and I gaze beyond the gate towards the Colonial style buildings with their terracotta tiled roofs. Oh how I hope I’m offered a tour of the grounds one day!

These authentic encounters validate our decision to not live in the confines of a walled compound. After much deliberation, we chose a beautiful apartment in the heart of the city. It’s unexpectedly modern with cooling marble floors and generously spacious for this urban location. Best of all, our terrace is shaded by a canopy of massive rain trees, impossibly tall coconuts, mango and bamboo.

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Under the shade of a rain tree

They shelter the headmaster’s garden below, its calm interrupted twice daily by the  passing flow of students. The morning security guard motions to school children in starched white uniforms to hurry, hurry, as they jump out of a car or auto- rickshaw and rush the gate, late for class. Mothers wave their student goodbye as they disappear into the lush grounds…phew, made it just in time! I hear cricket games in the distance, the national anthem and school announcements…all a pleasant ‘commotion.’

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The rush of school pick up

We soon discover the school has also given us a music studio…serenades drift up to our terrace, strains of Adele, jazz and snippets of Indian folk. It blends with the headmaster’s menagerie of ducks, honking geese and a very plump turkey who fans his plumage and makes his presence known with long, squeaky honks. Thankfully, pleasant birdsong and chatter of hawks, pigeons and parakeets soften the soundtrack.

“Monkeys pass through about twice a year,” my landlord tells me as we appreciate the vista from the terrace on the first day. He laughs as I recoil, my lifelong fear of monkeys revealed. We’ve had a comfortable rapport since I first viewed the apartment and he’s obliged us with window treatments of our choice and painting in a shade complimenting my Indian inspired decor of lanterns and silk cushions in gorgeous hues of duck egg green and soft blues.

I feel further spoiled when I realize that an iron wallah sets-up in the shade of the doctor’s garden across the street. The first day, I take over five shirts to be ironed “50 rupees,” Laurence says, shyly glancing up from his coal-powered iron. I ask how long the coal stays warm in the hefty contraption. “Two hours,” I’m told and when I attempt to tip an extra 20 rupees, Laurence returns it to me. Five beautifully pressed shirts for about $1, his rate the same for all. There is help of every nature in the neighbourhood and I understand that it is both our pleasure and an obligation to avail ourselves of these services…it’s expected.

“Anything, anything at all you need, you go to Anand,” the landlord insists. Part of the small ‘family’ we seem to have adopted is this young man with a ready smile and his finger on the pulse of it all; cleaners, internet hookup, pest control, repairmen. Anand is the acting boss of the other ‘family’ members of this five apartment complex including the maintenance and sweeper fellow, the drivers and the security guard who is never far from his post at the gatehouse.

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Villas standing their ground against modernity

Every time my husband passes our guard, Rajesh Kumar, he is given a quick salute. Our Rajesh isn’t as well turned-out as most of the guards, but he is always gentlemanly, insisting on carrying my shopping up the short flight of stairs to our wide, welcoming front door.

 

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A welcome tilak and a vase of ‘eight-hundred roses’

At one end of our short street stands the Bishop Cotton gate, the other intersects with a tree-lined road dotted with bars, restaurants and older villas that stand defiant against the onslaught of development. They contrast a handful of nearby hotels where one can disappear into storied luxury; where doors are opened by resplendently attired doormen and vases of eight-hundred roses welcome in sparkling lobbies. Where one is welcomed with a Namaskar and approached with a tray for the tilak.

This is the welcoming ceremony of dotting a small dab of vermillion or sandalwood on the forehead, just between the brows. This is believed to be where the spiritual eye resides…the place of latent wisdom. And unlike Munglora’s self-adhering bindi, these are more ‘permanent.’

Close to all of this is the ‘lung’ of the city, Cubbon Park with ample walkways, jogging paths and bike trails shaded by silver oaks and Cook pines from Australia. “If they were to ever diminish this park, there would be riots in the streets,” a fellow park enthusiast tells me. I believe I’d join in – it’s imperative that Bengaluru safeguards its dwindling greenery.

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Architecture contrast, looking out from Cubbon Park

We visit the Bangalore Club built during the British Raj for the pleasure of ranking officers and officials stationed in this former cantonment area of barracks and regimental head quarters. This club is redolent with history and after a swim or game of tennis, one can quench one’s thirst with a sundowner in the ‘Men’s Lounge’ (women now allowed) where Winston Churchill still has an unpaid bar bill and a stuffed leopard recalls the pursuits of hunting and gaming…it’s as if you have stumbled upon a movie set.

We continue to explore this past weekend and just a short auto-rickshaw ride away, we find ourselves a little further into the cantonment area. Whether you agree, or not, with this period of history, iconic vestiges of it remain. From 1806 to 1881, this area comprised the largest British Raj cantonment in southern India. We seem to find the old residential area. We peek behind crumbling stone walls where once stately bungalows are strangled by overgrown gardens and telling shop signs cling to redundant buildings.

We’re welcomed into the superbly maintained St. Andrew’s Church and our eyes are drawn to wall plaques that reveal the history of church members in the late 1800’s. People from England, Scotland and Wales, either stationed or chose to make their life here. Some having met their demise from malaria, dengue fever, leopard and tiger attacks…sad reminders of the perils of life in tropical climates.

With that thought in mind, we make our way to Commercial Street to buy mosquito coils and see this lively shopping district first hand. Other than the odd modern shop planted in the maze of crisscrossed streets, we’re transported back to the India of our backpacking days. It is still here; the intoxicating blend of colour, aromas and noise…the stamp of an authentic Indian street. Holy cows hold up traffic, vendors offer an array of goods and artisans inhabit impossibly small spaces creating stunning craft pieces.

We chat with rice and salt merchants, their archaic sign and ‘ancient’ scale an indication of their long standing business. The sellers willingly pose for a photo as does a nearby vendor of saris, an artisan stitching delicate mirror triangles onto brilliant pink silk, a lime juice vendor, a rice grinder, an antique dealer who details the merits of a brass Hindu collectible to me; all friendly and proud of their wares and talents.

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A proud artisan

We are lucky enough to meet Deepa as she sits with other women on the steps of a Marathi community hall, a long way from their traditional Mumbai origins. They’re celebrating a Hindu festival and after a friendly introduction, Deepa insists on taking us to the neighbourhood temple. Once there, yet more women are sitting quietly in the cool of a small temple and smile a welcome as we enter. A private puja, (prayer alcove) is opened for us to peer at the garlanded God and once again, a touch of vermillion is dabbed on my forehead.

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Deepa with her daughter…gathered with friends

“Come back with me,” Deepa insists, “it’s time for the festival lunch, you’ll eat with us.”

We stroll back through the congenial neighbourhood…circumventing cows recumbent on the cracked sidewalks and nodding ‘hello’ when Deepa is greeted by yet more people she knows. Once we’ve returned to the hall, we find ourselves seated cross-legged on the floor, a hand-stitched banana leaf plate before all two-hundred or so of us.

Deepa’s young daughter sits just behind me and practices her English. Her brother-in-law gives helpful instructions on eating with one’s fingers and the young lady next to me plies me with questions. We are the only foreigners, yet made to feel welcome and I sense they are honoured (and a little bemused) that we are enjoying this festival lunch with them.

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Guests at a community festival

Suddenly, it’s all hands on deck as barefoot young men in sleeveless t-shirts and longhis serve from slender metal buckets. One after another, a plop of rice, masala, vada, raita,dosa, more rice…all eaten with only your right hand. I ask for another popadom as the rice is too hot for these uninitiated fingers.

“Your husband has finished everything,” Deepa tells me as I look over and see his plate wiped clean. Not surprising, it’s the best food we’ve had in the first six weeks in India!

“Did you like it?” our hostess asks as we bid farewell and exchange numbers. “Anything you need at all, you call me and we’ll get together.” We thank Deepa and tell her how much we’ve enjoyed the experience.

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A break on Commercial Street

It has been that way, so many welcoming people from expats, to locals, to transplants from other parts of India; we couldn’t feel more embraced these first weeks.

After the busy weekend, I meet a new friend and neighbour for coffee and I’m pleased with yet more unexpected ‘luck.’

“You know there’s a roof-top yoga studio I practice at. It’s just on the other side of your apartment,” Camilla says, knowing that I’ll be pleased.

It’s too good to be true, literally next door…yet another wonderful discovery of this neighbourhood.

And there will be much to experience and discover once we’re fully moved in, when our shipment arrives from Canada; it seems to be on a world-wide adventure all of its own.

We’ll then wander and embark on trips outside of Bengaluru, into this enchanting land of India.

First, however, I have a book project in another magical country, Malaysia. You’ll find me in Penang the next few weeks..wish me luck!