Saturday, 23 February 2008

Itinerant Builders and Roadworkers in Bangalore, Southern India

Scattered here and there, in small and large groups, on bits of waste ground where building or road works are going on, are encampments of ragged tents and crude temporary structures. They often take the form of a bamboo framework constructed of a row of half circles linked by horizontal purlins. This is covered with odd bits of plastic sheeting, usually blue, and occasionally with dried palm leaves, to make a small low room directly on the bare earth. Each one of these is home to a family while the work lasts. When the road or building is finished the workers and their families must pack up and move on.

We are visiting in the cool of winter when the daytime temperature reaches 29C. I cannot imagine how the people tolerate these abysmal living conditions without rising up in angry revolution, yet the families we pass are invariably cheerful. The parents wave and smile while the children, who should be in school but aren’t, rush up laughing, keen to be photographed.
“One photo, one photo Uncle.”

Tuesday, 19 February 2008


Arjuna's Penance

The Shore Temple

I first visited this southern Indian coastal town twenty-three years ago. It was a quiet place made remarkable by the stunning shore and rock cut temples, huge relief carvings on the granite boulders, together with a school for sculpture and a town full of practising sculptors working in stone.

The intervening years have transformed it to a noisy, bustling, tourist hustling destination. It is now 5$ US for foreigners to visit the Five Rathas and the Shore Temples, which incidentally are no longer on the shore. A rocky promontory has been built separating them from the sea, under the auspices of UNESCO, ostensibly to protect the stone and foundations of the temples from salt-water erosion. They are indeed badly eroded, however as they were built 1300 years ago this is hardly surprising. The altered setting puts the temples some distance from the sea and has deprived the buildings of a considerable amount of drama, but made it easier to enclose them and thus charge for entrance. (Is this cynicism on my part? Treatments exist to seal and protect stone; surely this, together with rocks to break the force of the waves, would have been an aesthetically better solution.)

Having said this it is still a rewarding visit. The rock cut temples are extraordinary. The Five Rathas were created around 630 AD and are a set of monolithic, carved granite interpretations of the major wooden temple styles of the period. The mind boggles at the amount of work required to realise these buildings, especially in such hard and intractable stone. There are other rock cut and cave temples around the town together with relief carvings, including the magnificent ‘Arjuna’s Penance’ depicting the descent of the Ganges. The riverbed is represented by a cleft in the rock surrounded by people and animals, including some beautifully carved elephants. The Shore Temples are from a slightly later period, around 700 and are made from dressed blocks of granite.

Three of the Five Rathas

Rock Cut Shiva Temple

Although large-scale tourist development has invaded the town with many hotels and shops flogging stuff from all over India, there are still plenty of sculptors at work there, some of them producing extremely fine work. The large-scale pieces are predominantly in granite, with smaller work in softer stone that allows fine detail. There is also bronze casting using the lost wax method and the school of sculpture continues to thrive.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Naga Puja

Wandering along a back road in a Bangalore suburb we had passed an old termite mound that had been wound around with string, covered with the scattered remains of flower garlands and anointed with orange and red pigment. I assumed it was sacred for some reason, but thought no more about it until, on February 12th when passing that way again, we found the hillock, and another we had not previously noticed, to be a hive of activity. A crowd of women, watched by a man and a small boy were taking it in turns to make offerings to the old nests. They had garlanded them with fresh flowers, coloured powder and made offerings of rice, banana and coconut, stuffing some of the rice into holes, then carefully wound new string round the mounds, completing the effect with bunches of smoking joss sticks.

At the second, and more popular, of the two hillocks we were made welcome and given bits of banana and sweet rice to eat. A teenage girl in the group spoke good English and explained that it was the day to make offerings to the snake. We noticed a neatly folded sari on top of the nest and enquired as to its purpose but she was unable to explain, just saying that it was something that had always been done.

T. Richard Blurton, in his book on Hindu Art casts some light on to what we were witnessing. The Cobra (Naga) is a creature associated with the god Shiva. ‘In the linga form of the god snakes are often shown carved around the shaft or are seen swimming up the path of the yoni. The phallic imagery of such usage is clear.’ He goes on to explain that because of the snake’s links to fertility and due to the fact that they often take over old ant hills for their burrows, these are often made into Naga shrines, which are especially visited by women seeking the birth of male children. They will conduct special pujas there leaving food, milk, glass bangles and miniature cradles. Shiva and the Naga are very popular in this part of India and we had noticed many shrines featuring sculpted cobras, often intertwining.

A possible explanation for the folded saris on the termite hill is that during the course of a normal puja, the god is often garlanded with flowers and dressed in fine material. It is not really feasible to do this with the mound so perhaps the garments placed on the top are a gesture in this direction.