Friday, 31 May 2013

It's War Folks

A not so funny thing happened on my way to Gezi Park where an ongoing protest is being held to keep Istanbul's last remaining green space from being turned into Istanbul's 94th shopping mall.  It was 1 in the afternoon.  I hadn't heard or read of what might have happened this morning and wanted to go and sit in for awhile if possible.  I was walking along Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul's main (mainly pedestrian) shopping street.  I was about 2 blocks away from Taksim Sq.  when i heard all kinds of yelling and screaming.  A group of maybe 30 people were running toward me yelling "Polis! Polis!" Then i heard the BOOMPH! BOOMPH! sound of tear gas guns being fired. Taksim Sq disappeared in a cloud of tear gas.  I turned and started running.  Fortunately the wind was blowing hard.  In the opposite direction.  It's war folks.

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

There's Something in the Air... and it Burns Like Tear Gas

There's now a tank that seems to be parked almost daily on the gay pedestrian street Istiklal Caddesi.  The shoppers and gawkers and tourists and residents on their way somewhere or back walk along the line of shops morphed from Ma and Pop Kebab restaurants and local brands to MacDonalds, Burger King, Benetton, and Mango.  And the protesters who used to daily peacefully march, holding their placards and signs, waving flags and chanting, exercising their democratic rights, now face a new danger: tear gas and water hoses.

For the last ten years that I've here, it was only a once-a-year phenomenon - every 1 May, two tanks stationed at either end of Istiklal threatened any potential dissident. The aftermath of a seventies 1 May that left over thirty people dead.

Today it's become the face of force. A daily reminder to the people of Turkey that the government is ready to use whatever force necessary to squelch any and all dissent.

Last summer, the tables and chairs that lined all the side streets of Beyoglu were ordered "removed."  Those who dare defy the law and placed a table and a few chairs outside for patrons who wanted to smoke and drink outside, suffered the consequences of the "Outdoor Chair and Table Squad" - trucks that roamed the side streets waiting to pounce upon any table or chair placed outside and remove them.

Friday, a new alcohol law was passed.  No alcohol can be sold by stores after 10pm.  I'm not a drinker.  It doesn't affect me.  But there's a trend.  A trend that's highly unsettling.  Tanks parked on the busiest street of Istanbul.  Prohibition of any outdoor show of drinking alcohol.  No alcohol permitted to be bought or sold after 10pm.  And more journalists imprisoned every day.

What's next?  What's becoming of Ataturk's democracy?

Stay tuned for the next installment of "As the world turns Conservative."

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

the Black Krishna

Walked into Old Vrindavan through narrow lanes lined with beggars; stores selling paintings of your favorite deities with faces surrounded by twinkling christmas lights; the chinka chinka chinka of finger cymbals; holy chants echoing in temple halls; honking rickshaws and old black ball bicycle horn farts.  The ubiquitous starving crippled cows browse through piles of trash, munching on discarded napkins and plastic bags that will twist around their intestines killing them slowly and painfully. Momma monkeys with tiny big-eyed babies clinging to their bellies fight street dogs for scraps.  Hawkers standing at their rough-hewn, gray, wooden carts piled high with roses yell to the passersby - the scent of the roses strong and sweet, perfuming the air.  Garlands of flowers are being sold everywhere to lay at the feet of deities in temples as prevalent as bars in Istanbul's clubbing scene in Beyoglu. The scents of incense and roses mingle with the steam of deep-fried samosas, pakoras, aloo tikka and puri, cow shit and urine.  Pilgrims buy sweets and flowers as offerings to Krishna.

I'm headed to Banke Bihere - the Black Krishna.  Indian pilgrims ply the lane to cast their eyes upon this strange wide-eyed black idol.

I ask directions of a man who gestures I should follow him.  He's dressed in white kurta pyjamas with an impeccably folded blue shawl across his left shoulder, hanging over his chest and back.  He leads me down a side street of sweet sellers and points to the temple on the left.

I kick off my sandals and push them to the side of the pile of removed footwear and pad slap slap slap barefooted along the marble floor to the entrance.

Inside, I begin the serpentine metal-post-lined path to the deity.  It smells like a rose oil factory. Teary-eyed devotees stop periodically, bring their hands together in prayer and gaze toward the enshrined idol on the stage at the front of the temple.

Holding onto their garlands of flowers, baskets of lit candles and marigolds, boxes of sweets, they haul themselves up the steep wooden steps - women on the left, men on the right side of rails that protects the little statue from his worshippers. 

Two priests stand in the neutral zone between the men and women.  The floor is a raised bed of discarded pressed leaf wrappers that held offerings. 

From either side, the rapturous worshippers thrust their boxes , baskets, and other offerings toward the two priests.  Ten, twenty, fifty, and a hundred rupee notes shoved toward their faces.

The two scowling priests grab the rupees, pocket them, fling handfuls of round ping-pong sized and shaped milk sweets at the feet of the little black idol, hand the half full box back to its owner and toss the flowers on the ground.  Some people get their garlands sprinkled with holy water and returned to them.

The faithful gaze big-eyed at the black idol.

It's a quirky little statue even by Hindu standards, with a  jet-black face, huge staring white eyes, and a jewel-button nose, all dressed up in a sparkling glittery gold party dress, accessorized by strings of marigold, rose, and daisy chains.

The worshippers weep and tremble.  Pray to the unmoving little black deity.  The priests' eyebrows furrow. They wave us away and back down the wooden steps.  

My  travel agent, Pankaj Yadao explained the story of the "Black Krishna" when I came to pick up my train ticket.

"In the time of the Muslim King, Akbar - you know him, Madame?"

I nod in affirmation having read about Akbar - the most liberal of all Muslim Kings - who invited scholars from every religion: Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, Parsi to gather together regularly to discuss far-ranging issues.

Pankaj continues. "There was one singer who was the greatest of all singers.  His name was Hari Das Mahraj - you write that down Madame," he instructs me like a strict primary school teacher. And I dutifully write down the name on the sheet of paper with names of the important temples to visit.

"Hari Das Mahraj's singing was sooo beautiful, that when he sang, all the animals and birds in the forest came to listen.  And stayed until he finished singing."

"One day while he was singing soooooo strong, a Black Krishna rose up out of the ground and told him his singing had called him up to be worshipped  by all.  So they built a temple around the Black Krishna.  And that's the temple Banke Bihere."

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I make my way out to the harsh, sunlit entrance.  Squinting, I search for my sandals. I don't dare put on my sunglasses as cheeky monkeys hop about just looking for some glasses to snatch and ransom for a treat.  I slip on my sandals and make my way out in search of somewhere quiet to have some breakfast and write about the Black Krishna.

In Vrindavan Even the Chai Wallahs...

"Masala chai," I say to the young man making a pot of steaming milky spiced black tea.

The chai wallah prays and chants as he tosses the black tea into the stained pot.  Chants as he scoops the sugar and throws it in.  Chants as he pours in the milk.  Rings the prayer bell as the savory-sweet tea boils.  Says a prayer as he pours it through the strainer into the tiny earthenware cup that looks like a miniature clay flower pot.  Hands me my spicy milk tea, then puts his hands together over his heart.

"Nameste.  Hare Krishna," he says to me.

Imagine what life would be like if Starbucks started implementing this policy for their baristas.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

rockin' and rollin' with the Hare Krishnas at ISKON, Vrindavan

There was not a single seat available in any of the many trains heading from Delhi to Vrindavan.

"You take bus, Madame. No problem," said the chubby, bald, travel agent/internet manager with the red and gold swatch of gulal between his bushy, salt and pepper eyebrows.

"How long does it take by bus," I asked.

"No.  Not long. Best way.  Go to Kashmiri Gate. To Ayesbeety.  (I.S.B.T - Indian State Bus Terminal). Get bus to Mathura."

I left my guesthouse at Pahar Ganj at 10a.m. Hopped a rickshaw to Kashmiri Gate I.S.B.T., only to find there were no buses there going to Mathura.

"You must go to SarayKalikan for bus to Mathura," one saried lady who looked remarkably like a poor Indira Gandhi, told me.

"Come," she said, "Follow me across the pedestrian bridge."

On the other side of the road, she showed me to a city bus which she explained would be much cheaper than a rickshaw.

A half hour later, I was at Saray Kalikan.

As I started down the lane that led to a hub of buses, I heard a bus hawker yell: "MathuraAgraMathuraAgraMathuraAgra!" as if it were one long word, and realized that this bus for Agra made a stop at Mathura.

So, I grabbed the two rails on either side of the incredibly steep entry steps, and hauled myself up and in.  Taking an aisle seat on the right side of the bus, I gingerly lowered myself down and next to the young man seated in the middle seat.  Even for a tiny person like me, seated next to two small-framed, young Indian men, meant a ride in which my right thing was pressed against the left thigh of the gold-earringed man next to me; my right shoulder and upper arm in constant contact with his left.  The window on our side was broken and unable to open.  The temperature in the bus was about that of a Swiss sauna. 

When we were half an hour from Mathura, the bus pulled into a dusty roadside eatery, everyone got out, ate thalis, and finaly returned to the bus.  I had left my guesthouse in Delhi at 10am.  I arrived in Mathura, more than somewhat disgruntled, at 4pm, and then had to grab a jam-packed tempo from Mathura to Vrindavan .

 What a ridiculous way to spend a day, I thought to myself.  I metaphorically clicked my tongue at my foolishness at spending one of my last few days in India riding on a hot sweaty bus.  And considering how long it took, I inwardly seethed with frustration, knowing that I'd have to repeat the process the very next day.  How bloody stupid, I thought.

Then, to put the cherry on the top of the melting sundae, I discovered that because it was the Hindu holiday of Navratri, there were no rooms at the proverbial inn.  I sprinted from one ashram to the next, hot, dusty, sweaty and tired, each time receiving the same reply: "Sorry Mam.  No room.  All full."

But thanks to my former Rishikesh guesthousemate - a long-time Indian traveler from the UK,  I had an ace up my sari.

"It ain't pretty.  But it's cheap and safe," he told me. "It'll do in a pinch.  If all else fails.  The manager - a big bloke - 'll sleep outside your room and snore like a chimney.  But mind the monkeys.  Don't even think a going out a yur room with any food.  And don't wear any kind a glasses.  Those cheeky monkey's 're notorious fer  stealin the glasses right off your face and ransomin them for food.  And not just any food.  They'll hold out for somethin special,they will."

So down a side street I hustled, and sure enough the "big bloke" showed me the room right behind where he sleeps on a cot outside.  Not exactly a celebration of the senses, but maybe not the very worst room I've ever stayed in India.  (pretty close to the end of the spectrum of low expectations, though). But for 200 ruppees (less than the equivalent of $3.75) it was perfectly manageable.

Room settled, I rushed down the main road to where I saw a sign for a travel agent as I was coming into town.

It turned out that there was a seat available at 7am from Mathura to Delhi the day after the following day. Yes! I could spend all day tomorrow and then just a ride of only three hours on a vehicle with a toilet and roaming food and drink vendors the following day. Things were looking up.

"First just go across the street to ISKON," my friendly travel agent told me. "Everyone should visit there.  Then tomorrow you must go to the most important temple in Vrindavan, Banke Bihere.  It's where the famous black Krishan is.  And there's a Durga temple where many Navratri celebrations are taking place.  By the way, are you on Facebook?"

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ISKON stands for the International Society for Krishna Consciousness.  And these people know how to throw a good worship.

As I approached the main hall, I could hear the drums and tambourines, finger cymbols, harmonium and one beautiful voice leading the faithful in rounds of: "Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare.         

I'd expected shaven-headed devotees wrapped in saffron sheets.  What I hadn't expected was to be greeted by an official greeter, whose first act was to invite me to dance.

Yes sir! My kind of temple.  My kind of prayer.

And so within my first minute inside Balaram Temple, I was twirling ecstatically, waving my arms in the air, and chanting "Hare Krishna."

Then I felt a tap on my left arm.  I turned to see a small, gray-haired Indian lady in an autumn-leaf motif sari, who smiled into my eyes and indicated she wanted to dance with me.  Another woman joined us and as the music  grew in tempo and intensity, more and more women joined the group, as well as children and men.

"Hare Krishna" was sung in ways I could never have imagined.  A devotee with a voice somewhere between an Aaron Neville warble and an Ella Fitzgerald scat, sang soulful variations on the them of the old standard.  "Hare Krishna" morphed into a spiritual opus and the crowd went wild.  Faster and faster.  More and more frenzied.  Everyone clapping chanting dancing spinning.  Men women children.  The only thing to be concerned about was stepping on one of the prostrate bodies on the floor.

And I was so glad, so unbelievably glad I had traveled those hot, sweaty hours in that unairconditioned bus, plastered against the passenger to my right, on a 100 degree day.

                                    *                                         *                                       *

Smiling ear to ear, looking into other radiant, smiling eyes, dancing together, singing together, celebrating life, it was a great way to end my two and a half months in India.