Sunday, January 28, 2007

Religion Under Kerala's Communist Government

The State of Kerala, widely reported to be the first elected communist government, would seem an unlikely place for so many temples, Hindu and Jain, mosques, churches of numerous denominations, even a basilica or two, and synagogues everywhere. Religion, is seems, is infused into daily life, from personal identification and diet, to celebrations and knowledge of gods. Festivals are held in various temples at different times throughout the year, some with small and huge elephant processions. Music and chanting wafting (or blasting, depending) from temples sometimes wakes us early in the morning, and the Arabic call to prayer from mosques can be heard in the late afternoons. Small and large temples are gaily decorated and streets in towns, villages and larger cities around temples have colorful banners lining and hanging above the road leading to the local temple at festival time.

“What is your good name?” seems to be one way of asking our religion, with Michael winning nice smiles from Christian Keralans, who have familiar names like Matthew, Abraham, Joseph and Mary. One yoga teacher assured us that “Jesus was in our hearts and has the power to heal,” which we would have thought an odd statement from a yoga teacher before coming to Kerala. Other yoga teachers silently meditate beneath paintings of Shiva and other Hindu gods with photos of gurus hanging from their studio walls.

In Cochin, The Koder House, now a small hotel, was until recently the home of the Jewish community’s patriarch, Mr. Satu Koder, until his death. In Mattancherry, a well known synagogue has barely enough men to hold Friday night and Saturday services, but is open for tourists, except Friday and Saturday. The Lonely Planet reads that it is open except for Saturday, but one of the many Kashmiri merchants with shops clustered on Jew Street told us that there was an argument between members of the congregation on cleaning before services, so now a sign is posted, “Closed Friday and Saturdays.” The same merchant told us vivid stories and the significance of the animals that gods are portrayed riding or standing with for the various apparitions of the Hindu gods Shiva, Durga and Krishna. His face was so intent in his telling, that when I asked him, “Are you Hindu?” he looked surprised, and said, “No! I’m Muslim, but I know these stories from films and I read.”

Sarah, an older Jewish woman, owns a shop on Jew Street and buys embroidered towels from “poor Catholic convent girls.” She speaks English and Malayalam, responding with a little disgust to my stupid question, “of course I speak Malayalam, these people aren’t educated,” as she gestured towards the crowded street. She was born in Cochin and has lived her entire life in Kerala.

In Fort Cochin, guest house owners Leslie Fernandez, and another named Aijai Matthew Abraham who with his mother Mary, run a lovely large Dutch colonial houses turned into guest houses, or “home stays.” Mary, obviously proud of the culture, arranged for us to see a mercifully abridged performance of the Kathakali, the ancient dance form based upon the Mahavharata, Ramayana and Bhagavata, the stories of the gods Rama and Krishna. Traditional temple performances are said to go six to nine hours, or last all night.

Ashams are scattered around the countryside, usually named for a leading swami, and they attract hundreds if not thousands of visitors. Passing a huge one on an overnight backwater houseboat trip between Kollam and Alappuzha, a bridge connects a temple complex with two concrete residential towers on the other side of the canal. It is the home base ashram of the famous female guru, Shri Amritanandamay Devi, the Hugging Mama. A French woman who stayed there told us that the towers housed 3,000 residents, and that when HM travels, she is accompanied by 300 devout followers. (More about our mountain forest ashram experience in the Searching for the Perfect Yoga School posting)

The annual pilgrimage of thousands of male devotees dressed in orange and black dhotis to the Hindu temple, Sabarimalla, is said to be the second largest pilgrimage in the world, implying that it is second to the Haj in Mecca. (see The Temple Scene in Trivandrum posting for some eye witness details.)

Religion, tradition and government have some seemingly odd contradictions from an outsiders view point. An article in a recent edition of the Hindu Express reported that the film Water, by Deepa Meta was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film by Canada, and may be shown in India after being banned following “violent protests by fundamental Hindus” during her first attempt to film it in India four years ago. Guest house owner, Mary, quietly acknowledged that there will be “some criticism,” if it is shown in Kerala because non explicit scenes of a widow seventy years ago forced into prostitution may offend. Scenes from the erotic Kamasutra are popular in paintings, sculpture and readily available in books sold in the busy book shops in any city. Another article reported the government suspension of a private satellite TV station for showing inappropriate programming, meaning a “documentary” entitled “The Sexiest Commericals in the World,” that offended the national censors who are sensitive to religious pressures. Kerala is recognized as one of the most religious states in the country. It seems that the Keralan communist parties and intermittently elected government skipped the part of Marx’s writing that “religion is the opiate of the people.”

Monday, January 22, 2007

Searching for the Perfect Yoga School

Up the Malabar Coast in Search of the Perfect Yoga School

Chandra sat cross legged on the roof of the Kovalam Jeevan Aryvedic Beach Resort and led his three students through breathing excercises called pranayama, then moved the group into standing positions. As the sun broke above the coconut palmed hill to the east, the students practiced namastar, or sun salutes. The rhythmic breathing, with eyes closed, was in time with the rolling of Arabian Sea waves crashing onto the beach below. The yoga teacher gave us directions to the school he learned his craft, in Trivandrum.

In Trivandrum, the Sivananda Yoga School is tucked into a neighborhood house. Above the din of music and speech from huge speakers set across the street for an annual neighborhood residential meeting, two teachers explained the history of the school, which they said originated in India and is now world wide with it’s headquarters in Canada, north of Montreal in the Laurentian Mountains. Pictures of two swamis, hung above an eclectic altar, that included a picture of Jesus, a picture of one of the swami’s elderly mother, flowers, oil lamps and bright fabrics. Classes are given at the school for people who stay elsewhere, since there are no accommodations for students at this branch. The teachers, one a red head originally from South Africa, explained all teachers are volunteers, accepting donation from students. The donation amounts are listed in the school literature.

Moving onto our first ashram

A moderately crowded, winding, two lane road following a couple of different small rivers leads up from Trivandrum, through coconut palm forests and rubber tree plantations. A hired driver deftly swerved between buses and trucks coming down, passing slower vehicles in pure Indian style. In some stretches, market stalls were clustered on either side of the road before the steeper climb into the tea and spice growing Agastya Mountains. The well known Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwastari Ashram sits on the edge of a man made lake, on a hill above the Neyar Dam. The complex has separate men and women dormitories. Each cubicle has two cots, with mosquito netting and bedding provided. Huts are available for a few students. A large, two story covered open air teaching pavilion doubling as an eating hall, kitchen, temples and various other out building are within a pleasant garden. Since we arrived unannounced on a Sunday, we were placed in the dorms for the minimum three night stay. There are set times for yoga and meditation classes, meals, Karma yoga (which means light work around the place) lectures and lights out. A signature is required on one page list of mandatory rules at check in. In addition to the Yoga Vacationers, like us, we discovered that an international teacher training here has brought one hundred and sixty seven yoga students from twenty-two different countries. We’ve met students from England, Switzerland, Uruguay, Spain and amazingly, Iran. The head swami, who flew in from Canada with some other teachers for the course, announced that chants will be given in various languages in the next few days. There is a chant book, all in Sanskrit with the notable exception of the gospel Amazing Grace. Staff prepare huge quantities of vegetarian food which several hundred students devour with fingers off of metal plates, silently (it’s another rule) twice a day while sitting cross legged on the floor of one of the great halls. Ten Hindu gods, Siva, Ganesh, and Sarawati in their traditional postures and accoutrements (tigers, snakes) included, all in bright painted colors look down from the walls. At the end is a large stage with statues and hung hanging photos of the two founding swamis, and burning oil lamps. The day officially begins before light with a gong at 5:00 am, but Bollywood movie music from a nearby village radio and lions roaring from a “wildlife park” across the lake wake us earlier. After morning yoga classes, one by the lake with the Western Ghats looming in the distance, we sneaked away and found a lovely place behind the kitchen, near staff dormitories, under trees loaded with birds I’d never seen before, to read our stack of New Yorkers. Reading is supposed to be limited to spiritual literature. So, on to the next yoga school, perhaps in Kochi.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Sampling Ayurvedic Treatment

Ayurvedic treatment clinics and hospitals abound along the coast of southern Kerala, within each community they are attached to numerous resorts, attracting tourists for one to twenty eight day stays with various treatment packages. A legitimate clinic will have an Ayurvedic doctor in charge and offer massage and herbal medicine treatments. An initial consultation with the doctor who will go through a series of questions to diagnose your disease or whatever ails you. She will then prescribe a specific treatment. For example, for shoulder arthritis a poultice of turmeric, lemon and sometimes fenugreek in heated coconut oil to be lightly pounded along your naked body while you are lying on a massage table. For some ailments a hot steam hose is gently sprayed after the oil massage, for others a steam bath with only your head above the wooden box is prescribed. Yet another treatment is warm oil dripped from slowly on your forehead as you lie prone on a table. Warm oil with various herbs is the mark of an Ayervedic massage. Some tables are wooden, looking something like an oval embalming table with a trough and lip bordering the sides to keep the oil contained. Other tables are the more typical standard massage table covered in thick vinyl that westerns are used to seeing. (That is, if you are a massage affectionato.) Regardless, you need to check the facilities each time for cleanliness, because standards vary and some are filthy with dirty towels and enough leftover oil on the table to be deep fried. Other tables are clean in an antiseptic hospital clinic type room, complete with drab painted green walls.

The doctor at one of many Ayurvedic resorts in Yarmaka, a relaxed tourist beach hang out built out of coconut palm plantations on a cliff overlook the Arabian sea with scores of Aryvedic treatment centers, sat at her desk in her neatly wrapped sari and questioned my general health. For a sore back she had a specific treatment in mind, but when I revealed that we were staying only for two more days, her eye brow arched, she tried to hide her slight disgust and suggested two back massages. When I asked, “for one hour?” as is typical for most treatments, her eye brow arched again, and she replied, “Half body, half hour massage.” Two half body massages later at 300 rupees each, the back feels pretty good. The exchange rate is roughly 45 rupees per US dollar. Anjee, one of the massage therapists is one of four who works for the good doctor’s clinic. She spent one year in a massage school in Kochi, up the coast. Now she takes two busses for one hour each way from her home 20 km away from the clinic and says she does seven massages on a normal day. A tour group from France was expected the next day so she would be busier.

During three nights at the Sivananda Ashram, which also had an Ayurvedic doctor and massage therapists, we met three young men from Kerala enrolled in a yoga teacher training with about 160 others from Europe, Iran and the Americas. They had just finished a year long course in hotel management and had stopped on at the ashram for a month long yoga teacher’s certificate training. A certificate and English, the language of business seems to be a perquisite for a decent paying job. Malayalam is the language of Kerala and many people are bi or tri lingual, Hindi being the legal national language.

On the road, or boat, again looking for that next massage further north on the Malabar Coast.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Temple Scene in Trivandrum

The narrow lane leading up to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple is lined on one side with dozens of small stalls selling small toys, souvenir trinkets, tea, roasted cashews and other products for those headed for the temple. The other side of the lane is bordered by a long straight white wall topped by a wooden roof tipped up on the ends, characteristic of Keralan architecture, that is the Puthe Maliga Palace of the Travancore majarajas, and now a museum. Ahead, the temple looms about eighty feet above the road with its intricately stone carved figures of Hindu deities. Larger statues from the pantheon of Hindu gods stand on pedestals or reign from thrones beside the arched entries set on a stone platform reached by steep steps. To the side of the lane, behind the stalls is a city block sized open stone reservoir of water, known as a tank, where a few stone steps lead down to a narrow platform from which the devoted could pay 5 rupees to bathe.

On a Saturday evening near sundown, hundreds of worshipers made their way towards the temple, some milling around by the stalls and in the lane chatting and visiting each other, others walking together, many holding hands or by themselves. Women wore bright, colorful silk saris. The saris with flashes of red, gold, emerald green and peacock blues, some bordered with gold thread, flowed gracefully around dark skinned bodies. Some men wore simple white cloth dhotis, and bare chests. A sign in English warned that only Hindus were permitted to enter the temple itself, but as a couple of tourists we were not bothered by anyone as we walked around the outside platform of the temple, then bargained briefly with a vendor for a bag of delicious spiced roasted cashews. Part of the throng of worshippers were a group of about thirty male pilgrims, stopping off on there way to a major, all male annual temple festival in another part of Kerala, that gathered around one of several Land Rover vehicles to chant and pray to a small oil fire placed reverently on the hood of one of the cars. These men were distinguished by their black and orange dhotis. Their Land Rovers carried small temples mounted on their roofs in front of the loaded luggage racks. The cars presumably traveled in a caravan since all flew bright orange flags in each side of front windows, sticking into the air like escort vehicles. The story is that thousands of men in this sect traditionally walked through the jungle for days, braving tigers and other wild animals to reach the sacred temple high in the mountains. In modern times Land Rovers seem to have changed the mode of transportation for the more affluent part of this sect.

On another corner in downtown Trivanduram is a low lying half block sized temple of Ganesh, the elephant figure in Hinduism, where a group of dhoti wearing men could be seen just inside the dark entry throwing coconuts into a rectangular stone tub. A young English speaking man outside the temple explained that the men were making an offering with their prayers, like a better job, or whatever wish they hoped Ganesh would fulfill. One man labored with a large wooden rake to mix up the smashed coconuts. Throngs of men and women entered the temple, stepping down a few steps below the street level. The main street in front of the temple, known as MG Avenue, for Mahatma Ghandi was crowded with auto rickshaws, motorcycles with two or more people, new and old cars, including the ever present Ambassador taxi, open window local buses spewing black clouds of exhaust, and walkers dashing between all the vehicles in the noisy din.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Meeting up with Portlanders half way around the world actually happens

Walking out of the Trivandrum airport yesterday morning was another miracle—low and behold there was a driver waiting with my name on a sign. It was a little unclear how he knew to be there at that time, but later we discovered he was sent by a Portlander, the friend of a friend with whom I established email and phone contact, staying in Trivandrum in the house he and his wife had built on family property. They have come to Trivandum each year for about a month, for the past sixteen years. Later, after a good swim in the warm water of the Arabian Sea and a fresh fish dinner, our good friends and neighbors from Portland arrived at our hotel in Kovallam beach from Kochi, and within a few minutes another driver and car came to take us to the home in Trivandum to meet the other Portlanders. (While in the car, our friends told us they had dinner with mutual friends from Portland who they had arranged to meet via email.) We met a several family members, had beer and home cooked Keralan snacks prepared in wonderful hospitality by the sister-in law of our new found friends. He regaled us with some good stories. He told us that on the day that Sadaam was executed, the road south of the airport was blocked by Keralans who demonstrated their displeasure of American hypocrisy and would slap a picture of Sadaam on foreigners’ cars windshields. Foreigners were not in any danger, but many people didn’t go to work that day according to our new friend. Kerala is known as the first elected communist government and literacy and trade unionism is higher here than in other parts of Indian.

Kolavallam Beach is a mile long strip of shops, restaurants, small hotels, and yoga and massage centers full of European and Australian tourists. Indian women selling cut fruit and men selling trinkets roam the beach. Beach chairs and umbrellas rent for twice a typical Indian wage. Crews of fisherman share the beach launching their large wooden 10 person fishing boats to row off shore and drop nets. Crews of 20 or more pulling hand over hand on huge gauge rope haul laden fishing nets to the beach chanting songs to make the work easier and keep the rhythm of pulling together. It is a traditional style of fishing you can imagine being hundreds of years old. The catches are silver sardines that fill roughly two or three slightly large than a milk carton box. This amount of fish is the result of hours of work for what we are told is 2000 rupees a box—about $44. For us it is a romantic and beautiful scene, but then our hands are not rope burned and we can buy delicious fresh fish dinners overlooking the sea.

Sim Card Sagas

Many times I have enjoyed shocking American friends telling them that cell phones in India (Iran, Morocco too) are prevalent and much cheaper to use than in America. However, I have discovered that although this is still true, the bureaucracy to actually reactivate the Indian cell phone that we had purchased last visit to India is a labyrinth of rules, and of course, I only discovered each rule one at a time, thinking each time I returned to one of many Air-Tel shops first in Bangalore then in Kovallam Beach south of Trivandrum in Kerala having accomplished the needed requirement, there was another to meet. The general rules, and there were exceptions in each shop, are that a copy of your passport front page and the page with the Indian visa, a head shot photo (called a snap by English speaking shop workers) proof of a local address (which hotel desk clerks are loath to give) will allow the sale of a new sim card which expires in one month and some air time. Air time can easily now be added (at least that is the theory) After several days and fulfilling all of the rules, signing many forms and paying 200 rupees we now have an activated cell phone and I was able to call my mom briefly last night. These rules are apparently part of the Indian government requirements to track cell phone use by criminals and terrorists. Just who keeps the records of all the hundred thousands of forms and snaps would be one interesting thing to know. Presumably if a cell phone is used for nefarious purposes, the police would come looking for the owner of the sim card, so you can be sure that if my cell is ever stolen I will certainly report it to Air Tel!

Arriving Miracles

Well, we made it, arriving right on time into Bangalore airport at 1:15 am on Tuesday January 9th. Miracles of miracles, there was actually a man among the small scrum of taxi drivers and waiting relatives outside the airport exit door holding a placard with “Ballal Residency Hotel Francie Royce” waiting patiently for us when we walked out after easily clearing immigration and customs and our hour plus wait to successfully claim our bags. There is nothing so comforting than to know that someone is actually expecting you when you are ready for a bed. A quick drive to our hotel, reserved via their website, and a sigh as we finally laid our tired bodies flat and slept for several hours. Except for feeling like I really wanted to just lie down and sleep for a brief period in the Frankfurt airport and couldn’t fit comfortably on those waiting room seats designed to discourage just that, the flight does not seem to have been miserable. The Bangalore airport surprised us somewhat that it is old, one baggage claim belt and not the high tech entry into this city that set the pace for India to be the world’s second largest exporter of computers and the location of call centers for numerous multi-national companies. (Next time you need help with your cell phone, computer or soft ware, ask the service representative on the other end of the line where they are and there is a good chance Bangalore will be their answer.)

Our first introduction to Lufthansa employees on this trip, and we have made several on that great connecting flight that opens up Portland through Frankfurt to hundreds of cities in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, was the obviously German supervisor at the PDX counter who was annoyed with her co-worker for politely asking us to come forward from the line and check in since the supervisor had wanted to help someone in another line. We looked around and a woman waiting in another line, smiled knowingly and we smiled back. Later in Frankfurt, during the unsuccessful attempt nap, Lufthansa check in crew announced over the loud speaker that everyone needed to clear the waiting room, and line up to one side in the hallway so we could be checked in. As a couple of hundred tired passenger confusedly moved to get in line, another Lufthansa employee gruffly barked that we were in the way of the 300 passengers that were deplaning at the gate next to us, and to move to the other side. Lufthansa is a comfortable airline to fly, the full tasty meals with choice of beverage, including wine, are served twice and departure times were fairly punctual. Some of their employees, however, seem to think that the airline would run smoother without those pesky passengers. We kept a good humor and laughed quietly at the national stereotype.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Can you meet half way around the world using email to find each other?

This trip starts out with weeks of planning and getting tickets on Lufthansa, flying Portland to Frankfurt, Frankfurt to Bangalore with scheduled arrival January 9th. We had intended to meet our good friends who are in India touring after a couple of weeks volunteering at a clinic near Mysore at Mysore. So, going to Google, I found a great hotel in Mysore and made reservations, confirmed by email. Several days later our friends emailed to say they are ready to leave Mysore and how about Kerala. After numberous emails we think we will meet in the city of Trivandrum on the coast of Kerala, miles away from Mysore, not even in the same state. Through another friend I have an email address of her co-worker who is currently visiting his family home ivandrum and who has offered to send a driver and car to pick up us at the airport, and of course stay at his house. Our other Portland friends don't want to do that since they feel they have had enough freeloading in Indian family homes, so we declined the generous offer. I do hope that we will be met by a car and driver in Trivandrum, get to visit the friend of a friend and his home, and meet up with our friends. It will be exciting to see if we end up in the same hotel, let along the same city half way around the world in two days from now. Stay tuned.